The head of the Catholic Church in Ireland apologised today over revelations that he failed to alert police about a notorious paedophile priest.
Cardinal Sean Brady, who has defended his role in a 1975 meeting where two children abused by Father Brendan Smyth were asked to take a vow of silence as part of the internal church investigation, also signalled today that he would reflect on his future.
Senior clergymen removed Smyth from some priestly duties and recommended psychiatric treatment, but critics have said the failure to notify police at the time allowed Smyth to carry out a further 18-year reign of terror against children.
But addressing a congregation in St Patrick's Cathedral in Armagh, where he said Mass to celebrate the feast day of Ireland's patron saint, Cardinal Brady said sorry to those who felt let down.
"This week a painful episode from my own past has come before me. I have listened to reaction from people to my role in events 35 years ago," he said.
"I want to say to anyone who has been hurt by any failure on my part that I apologise to you with all my heart. I also apologise to all those who feel I have let them down. Looking back, I am ashamed that I have not always upheld the values that I profess and believe in."
Dr Brady, who has so far refused to resign despite intense pressure for him to step down, added: "Be certain that I will be reflecting carefully as we enter into Holy Week, Easter and Pentecost.
"I will use this time to pray, to reflect on the word of God and to discern the will of the Holy Spirit. I will reflect on what I have heard from those who have been hurt by abuse."
Dr Brady has so far dismissed calls for his resignation since his role in the 1975 investigation emerged at the weekend.
The Cardinal - at the time a part-time secretary to then bishop of Kilmore, the late Francis McKiernan - took notes during two meetings with children aged 14 and 15, whom he believed had been abused by Smyth.
The bishop subsequently had Smyth stripped of some priestly functions and he was recommended for psychiatric treatment, but the police were not notified.
Smyth was at the centre of one of the first paedophile priest scandals to rock the Catholic Church in Ireland.
A seven-month delay in extraditing the paedophile to Northern Ireland also toppled the republic's government in November 1994 when the Labour Party withdrew from its coalition with Fianna Fail over claims that a warrant was withheld.
The repeat offender later admitted a litany of sex attacks on about 90 children in the North and South of Ireland over a 40-year period and was jailed. He died in prison in 1997.
Victims who were raped and abused by Smyth after 1975 have said they could have been spared their ordeal if the church leaders had notified police at the first opportunity.
Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has said he believes Dr Brady should consider his position, while the Irish Government's Environment Minister John Gormley said: "I suppose in many ways it is a case of evil triumphing while a good man stood back."
Dr Brady, who was applauded by most of the congregation of several hundred people today, said: "Ireland and its people have much to be proud of. Yet every land and its people have moments of shame.
"Dealing with the failures of our past, as a country, as a Church, or as an individual, is never easy. Our struggle to heal the wounds of decades of violence, injury and painful memory in Northern Ireland are more than ample evidence of this.
"There is always tension between the possibilities we aspire to and our wounded memories and past mistakes."
The Cardinal added: "These are momentous times for the Church in Ireland. I believe the two years leading up to the 50th International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin will be among the most critical for us since the time of St Patrick.
"I deeply believe that God is calling us to a new beginning, to a time of Patrician energy, reform and renewal."
Dr Brady, who also carried out traditional duties such as blessing shamrock today, added: "We must humbly continue to deal with the enormity of the hurt caused by abuse of children by some clergy and religious and the hopelessly inadequate response to that abuse in the past.
"I believe the period up to the Eucharistic Congress has to involve a sincere, wholehearted and truthful acknowledgement of our sinfulness. Like St Patrick, like St Peter, we as bishops, successors of the apostles in the Irish Church today, must acknowledge our failings.
"The integrity of our witness to the Gospel challenges us to own up to and take responsibility for any mismanagement or cover-up of child abuse. For the sake of survivors, for the sake of all the Catholic faithful, as well as the religious and priests of this country, we have to stop the drip, drip, drip of revelations of failure.
"The Lord is calling us to a new beginning. None of us knows where that new beginning will lead.
"Does it allow for wounded healers, those who have made mistakes in their past to have a part in shaping the future? This is a time for deep prayer and much reflection."
Cardinal Brady previously said he would only step down if told to by the Pope.
Today the Irish Primate said he looked forward to a pastoral letter from Pope Benedict on the recent child abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church in Ireland.
His comments came as Pope Benedict told his weekly general audience today that he would sign the pastoral letter on Friday.
The Pope expressed hopes that the efforts to address the sex abuse scandals in Ireland would help with the process of "repentance, healing and renewal".
He said the Irish church had been "severely shaken" and said he was "deeply concerned".
But Irish victims groups have already questioned the Pope's moral authority on the issue as scandals involving sex abuse in the church in his native Germany surface.
Andrew Madden, who in 1995 became the first in Ireland to go public with an abuse lawsuit against the church, dismissed the latest comments from Cardinal Brady.
"The notion of careful reflection is nonsense - he's had 35 years to reflect on what he did then," said Mr Madden.
"If the Catholic Church in Ireland is to be led by a man who accurately reflects it in its current state, then maybe it's only right and fitting that it should be led by a man who has covered up the sexual abuse of children by a priest.
"He's either going to go or he's not going to go and if he doesn't, the Catholic Church can't pretend to be serious in any way about the issue of child protection and about reaching out to people who have been abused."Reuse content