EIGHTEEN years ago in the elegant austerity of his private rooms overlooking the River Clyde the leader of Scotland’s Catholics was given fair warning of an impending apocalypse.

Cardinal Archbishop Thomas Joseph Winning was an undisputed heavyweight in both the secular and spiritual realms of Scotland, routinely inveighing against social inequality and the deprivation it wrought in those disadvantaged communities where most of his flock resided.

He was a force to be reckoned with in civic Scotland after years of cultivating solid working relationships with government and the media. On this occasion, though, he didn’t like what he was hearing.

I was then an executive on The Herald and he had invited me to discuss some of the challenges facing the church in Scotland. “You need to deal with clerical sex abuse in the church and to put in place a robust procedure of safeguarding to prevent it happening in the future,” I told him.

I also suggested that this would include handing over abusing priests to the police. “This is the biggest single threat to the authority of the church and it’s coming down the line fast.”

The meeting had been brokered by Ronnie Convery, Winning’s astute director of communications and a man who had harboured similar concerns. I can’t claim to have brought any unique wisdom into this encounter or to have been favoured with any special powers of discernment. There had already been an assortment of abuse cases involving Scottish priests whom the church had portrayed as ‘rogue elements’.

It was becoming clear, though, to some who had either spent time in a seminary or knew some who had – especially those who had experienced the church’s national training centre at Blair’s College in Aberdeen – that something evil had infected the Catholic Church.

Cardinal Winning died suddenly a few months later and so we’ll never know if he ever acted upon the warnings that I had communicated to him but what is clear is that predator priests in Scotland had simply been sent ‘away’ in the hope that their behaviour wouldn’t re-surface.

In this the church was no different to other groups and organisations in their response to sexual abuse of children or women.

This, though, isn’t to excuse an organisation which in the words of the current pope must be held to a higher degree of culpability owing to “her moral authority and ethical credibility”.

Many years later the Church established an independent commission chaired by Dr Andrew McLellan tasked with putting in place a system of future safeguarding.

Crucially however, this offered scant comfort to existing victims of clerical abuse and the families of some who had taken their own lives as a result of it. The commission’s remit did not extend to investigating the sins of the past and holding people accountable.

The conviction earlier this week of Cardinal George Pell in his native Australia should be a watershed moment for the global Catholic Church.

Yet, unless something truly transformative occurs in the systems of the Church and in the attitudes of the old men who administer them I fear it will be allowed to pass.

Pell is the most senior Catholic cleric to be found guilty of sex crimes against children and his conviction coincided with the summit on child sex abuse in Rome called by Pope Francis and attended by the world’s bishops and cardinals.

The sincerity of Francis in attempting to deal with a vast problem he inherited can’t be doubted but little of what he said made you think the church is sufficiently serious about this.

Amidst tired lines about child sex abuse being widespread across many organisations and religions Francis failed to offer the ‘zero tolerance’ approach which would have signalled a measure of intent.

If any of the 200 or so prelates present had any doubts about the suffering of victims then surely they would have been removed by the harrowing testimony of some who had been raped and abused. These were related amidst accounts of the indifference of the hierarchy to their pain. They represented many thousands of other victims.

As always, there will be some who will use this issue to take their visceral anti-Catholicism for an outing. I’m not talking here about the Orange Order which has become a convenient target for those in civic Scotland and among the political classes who pretend to be agitated about “the scourge of sectarianism”.

Rather, I’m referring to the ponytail and red corduroy brigade who seek to expunge all forms of Christian faith from their liberal Xanadu. Unless, of course, they are willing to ditch their long-held beliefs such as the sanctity of human life at all stages of its development and conform to a state-approved religion.

They should be careful. The Catholic Church across the world provides billions of pounds worth of free social care and medical services in areas beyond the reach of distressed government budgets.

In Scotland, along with the Church of Scotland, its work in these communities often begins when the social care budgets are exhausted.

In times when social divisions are prey to the hard right and to the power of the free market the message of Christ crucified and risen can be a bulwark against malevolent materialism; corporate greed and provide sustenance – both financial and spiritual – to those who are left by the wayside.

The old and morally desiccated men who are largely responsible for permitting the wickedness of child sexual abuse to flourish have left the church with little or no moral authority to speak on other matters which require a Christian response.

A zero-tolerance approach would involve removing them and dismantling their power-bases, including the Vatican, and replacing them with something more human and divine.

It took the first reformation to bring renewal in the Catholic Church. A second one is long overdue.