He said: "It has caused immense hurt to many children and families. To all victims and their families and friends we express in the name of the church our most humble apology for the hurt caused to them.
"We are deeply ashamed that some priests and religious have been abusers of children - a few of them on a wide scale."
The cardinal's comments followed a regular meeting of bishops during which almost all the proposed agenda was set aside for discussion of the sex abuse crisis facing the Catholic Church in Ireland. There have been a growing number of courtroom charges and allegations of sex abuse against priests and church institutions. Last week the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Desmond Connell, admitted lending pounds 27,500 from church funds to a curate to settle abuse claims, and there was confirmation that another priest had made a pounds 50,000 settlement.
Dr Daly said that because of the urgency with which the church hierarchy regarded the issue, the bishops had decided that all reports of serious allegations of child sex abuse against priests would in future be relayed to the police.
This was in line with the central recommendation of a report on child sex abuse from an advisory committee established two years ago. The report is not due to be published until the end of this year, but Dr Daly said the policy was official immediately.
"We want to make it clear that it is the policy of the bishops that all allegations where there is reasonable cause to suspect that child sex abuse may have occurred will be reported to the appropriate civil authorities. This reporting practice goes beyond what the law requires but we have adopted it after considering all the issues involved."
The cardinal highlighted the "distress and pain" felt within the church. "We assure our lay faithful that their confidence in their priests is well-founded because of the exemplary fidelity and dedication of the vast majority. This has been, and continues to be, a very painful issue. Our primary concern and preoccupation has been the protection and care of children."
Although Dr Daly spoke out forcefully about the issue following the bishops' conference in Maynooth, Co Kildare - the church's leading centre for the training of priests - church authorities betrayed some sensitivity during the early stages of the three-day meeting. At one point a security guard turned away journalists and a senior cleric used strong language when asking a television crew to leave.Reuse content