Some time next month, the British QC Geoffrey Robertson will deliver what his publishers Penguin are describing as a "devastating indictment" of the way the Vatican has run a secret legal system shielding paedophile priests from criminal trial around the world. Although Robertson acknowledges the deep faith and good works practised by millions of ordinary Catholics throughout the world, he examines whether the pope is responsible, morally or legally, for the combination of negligence and lack of interest which allowed so many paedophile crimes to go unsolved, and so many paedophile priests to thrive within the church.

At the end of another depressing week for Irish Catholics, these are not irrelevant questions. The decision by Pope Benedict not to accept the resignations of auxiliary bishops Eamonn Walsh and Ray Field is the latest indication from the Vatican that it has already left behind the controversies of the last few years – the Ryan report, the Murphy report and all that followed from them – and is again putting the protection of the institution of the church above all else. Initial soundings from the Vatican suggested that Benedict was afraid of creating hostages to fortune; if Field and Walsh had to go, then so too would any bishops discovered in the future to have been lax in the protection of children. As this is a likely prospect – in Ireland and elsewhere – the Vatican faced the prospect of bishops dropping like flies over the coming years as their negligence came back to haunt them.

For a pope less interested in the morale of believers than in canon law and in the rigid application of church teaching, that was an appalling vista indeed. Faced with a choice between battening down the hatches and sending out a signal that the Vatican was interested in accountability and justice for the people its priests had damaged, Benedict went for the easy option. For Irish Catholics, for the Irish government which established the Ryan and Murphy inquiries, for Archbishop Martin, who had done so much to place the issue of accountability on the agenda, the message from Rome was clear: it's time for you to move on, because we have.

The signs are that many people are moving on, though not into the arena of blissful ignorance in which the pope has chosen to fight this issue. It's hard to see, for example, how Archbishop Martin can stay in his current position when he has been so publicly humiliated by the Vatican and when relations with the two auxiliary bishops whose bacon was saved by Benedict have become so bad.

Ordinary, decent Catholics, increasingly frustrated by the intransigence from the top on the issue of paedophile priests and other controversies, will be moving on too. In this newspaper today, Marie Collins, a victim of clerical abuse who has managed, despite everything, to cling on to her Catholicism, announces that she is on the verge of quitting the Church. Last week's refusal to accept the resignations was as much as she could take. "I have always said my Christianity is not in doubt", she says. "I am not disillusioned with my faith in God or Christ," she says. "But I am just at the point where I'm considering that I don't need to call myself a Catholic any more, in a church where clerical power holds sway. My hope of reform coming from within the Church is gone".

Even before last week's news from the Vatican came through, 80-year-old Jennifer Sleeman from Clonakilty in Co Cork had announced she was organising a one-day boycott of Sunday mass "by the faithful women of Ireland". Sleeman, the mother of a Glenstal monk, wants "to let the Vatican and the Irish church know that women are tired of being treated as second-class citizens". She looks at her children and grandchildren, she says, and sees no future for the Catholic Church.

She is not alone. The à la carte Catholicism that once was ridiculed as the preserve of a feckless middle class is rapidly becoming the only sane option for believers. Many people would prefer for reasons of tradition, or ritual, or companionship to have a place to go to worship every Sunday. But the more they feel they are participating in a charade, as a captive audience for unaccountable leaders, the more likely it is that they will stay away from mass and parish activities, confident that the God they believe in will respect their conscientious objections to the Catholic Church in its current form. They will cut out the middlemen, in other words. It's the rational choice, perhaps the only one left.