The Catholic church in Ireland yesterday offered abject apologies following a report which exposed in harrowing detail how its most senior figures had covered up thousands of cases of child abuse by priests.
The report revealed that four consecutive Archbishops of Dublin had effectively colluded for more than a quarter of a century in ensuring that the activities of paedophile priests did not reach the public gaze.
It is the latest in a series of hugely damaging reports on the church and children, all of which have concluded that it routinely placed its own image before the protection of the vulnerable. The conclusion of this report, produced by a Commission of Investigation after years of research, could hardly have been more damning.
It said: "The Dublin Archdiocese's preoccupations in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse were the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the church, and the preservation of its assets."
It further said the Archdiocese "did its best to avoid any application of the law of the state". In many cases, reports of abuse were not followed up by police, it said, finding that senior police often regarded priests as being outside their remit.
The authors of the report, including a judge and two lawyers, examined a sample of complaints concerning 46 priests. Concluding that these had abused more than 320 children, they added that it was abundantly clear that child sexual abuse by clerics was widespread. They wrote: "One priest admitted to sexually abusing over 100 children, while another accepted that he had abused on a fortnightly basis during his ministry which lasted for over 25 years."
In his apology for what he called "the revolting story" set out in the report, Diarmuid Martin, the present Archbishop of Dublin, said it highlighted "devastating failings of the past". He added that the sexual abuse of a child was a crime in both civil law and canon law.
The report pointed out that, in turning a blind eye to the crimes of priests, the Archbishops had been in breach not just of the law of the land but also of canon law. Several of the Archbishops were qualified canon and civil lawyers. In one case an abusive priest was not reported to the police by an Archbishop despite having abused several young people while acting as a chaplain in a children's hospital. In many cases, abusing priests were simply moved to different parishes.
The Irish police force yesterday said it was "deeply sorry" that victims had not received the level of response and protection they were entitled to.
The Irish government also issued an apology, promising to pursue clerical child abusers. It said the report "shows clearly that a systemic, calculated perversion of power and trust was visited on helpless and innocent children in the Archdiocese".
It added: "The perpetrators must continue to be brought to justice, and the people of Ireland must know that this can never happen again.
The authors, having examined tens of thousands of files from the Archdiocese, dismissed church claims that senior clerics were unaware of the scale of the problem. They said it was highly significant that in 1987 the church had taken out an insurance policy to help cover future legal costs involved in defending compensation claims by victims.
They concluded: "The taking out of insurance was an act proving knowledge of child sexual abuse as a potential major cost to the Archdiocese."
One of the Archbishops, Desmond Connell, took a legal case to prevent investigators having access to more than 5,000 files kept in a private vault. He dropped the case under pressure from Archbishop Martin. It was revealed that the Connell files included complaints against at least 29 priests.