Pope Benedict XVI will today complete his interrogation of Ireland's 24 bishops before pontificating on one of the most shocking clerical scandals of recent times: the extensive sexual abuse of children by Irish priests and the pervasive campaign to conceal it.
A Vatican spokesman told The Independent that a pastoral letter from the Pope to the Irish people would be issued once he had had time to consider the results of the meeting. But that may not be enough to satisfy abuse victims, who have been clamouring for concrete action in the form of financial compensation and further resignations, including that of one of the bishops present at the summit. The bishop in question, Martin Drennan of Galway, pictured right, who was mentioned in November's incendiary Murphy report, has insisted he did nothing to endanger children, and has refused to resign.
An editorial in yesterday's Irish Times said that, should the Vatican limit itself to "expressions of regret", there would be "considerable disappointment among the faithful". The emergency meeting was ordered upon the publication of the second major report documenting the scale of the abuse in Ireland over a period of decades.
The Murphy report said the archdiocese had shown an "obsessive concern with secrecy and the avoidance of scandal" and "little or no concern for the welfare of the abused child". Four Irish bishops resigned after the report's publication. A few months earlier, the Ryan report had separately concluded that there had been wide-spread abuse of children in Catholic-run schools and orphanages in Ireland for more than 50 years – along with a culture of covering up such allegations.
The Pope has said he is "disturbed and distressed" by the abuse in Ireland and shares the "outrage, betrayal and shame" felt by the Irish people.
The head of this week's Irish delegation to Rome, Cardinal Sean Brady, the primate of all Ireland, told Vatican Radio that the two-day meeting, which concludes this afternoon, was part of a "journey of repentance, reconciliation and renewal" for the Irish church.
Ahead of the conference, the Vatican's number two, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said that some soul-searching was in order. "Trials that come from inside are of course the most difficult and humiliating," he said. He added that the process was necessary for the church to move on.
Observers note that widespread abuse of children by priests is not unique to Ireland. In 2002 Pope John Paul II summoned the US bishops to Rome as a result of sexual abuse in America. Pope Benedict has met privately with sexual abuse victims during pilgrimages to the US and Australia. And, in recent weeks, a new abuse scandal involving clergy has erupted in the Catholic church in the current Pope's homeland of Germany.