Pope John Paul II has defrocked two Catholic priests convicted of sexually abusing children in Ireland, an unprecedented move in this predominantly Catholic nation, church officials confirmed Thursday.

"The diocese confirms that two priests, previously convicted of child sexual abuse, have been dismissed from the clerical state," said the Rev. John Carroll, spokesman for Ireland's southeast Ferns diocese, which has been hard hit by sex abuse scandals.

The church declined to identify either man, but only two priests from the Ferns diocese have been convicted of such abuse: James Doyle (search) and Donal Collins (search).

Doyle received a four-year sentence in 1998 for abusing several boys; Collins received a one-year suspended sentence in 1990 for abusing one boy.

The church rarely defrocks priests, even those found guilty of crimes, and the decision was the first time the Vatican has dismissed a priest in Ireland over sexual abuse.

In this case, Ferns Bishop Eamonn Walsh (search) sent a file to the Vatican requesting the two men's dismissal, a request granted last month by the pope in what Carroll called "a supreme decision" that cannot be appealed.

The announcement came shortly before the government's expected publication of an investigation into how state agencies and church leaders mishandled abuse allegations in Ferns from the 1970s to 1990s.

The most notorious priest, the Rev. Sean Fortune (search), committed suicide in 1999 while awaiting trial on 66 criminal counts of molesting and raping boys over nearly two decades.

Ferns' previous bishop, Brendan Comiskey, resigned in 2002 after conceding he had done too little to stop the abuse being committed by Fortune and about a half-dozen other priests.

Several priests in the United States have been defrocked —a punishment the Roman Catholic Church prefers to call laicization (search) —over sexual abuse since the issue erupted into crisis in 2002.

Sex abuse scandals have taken their toll on the Catholic Church from Canada to Australia. But no nation has been harder hit than Ireland, which specialized in exporting priests worldwide until the 1980s.

The church's moral standing, Mass attendance and applications for priesthood have plummeted in Ireland since 1994, when the first major scandal involving a pedophile priest triggered the collapse of the government of then-Prime Minister Albert Reynolds.

Since then, both church and state have struggled to come to terms with the scale of abuse committed by priests in parishes, church-run schools, orphanages and workhouses.

Prime Minister Bertie Ahern in 2001 apologized on behalf of the state for its failure to oversee church-run institutions adequately and opened a system for victims to claim financial compensation.

The Residential Institutions Redress Board (search), which is investigating claims of physical and sexual abuse from the 1940s to 1980s, said last month it has paid nearly 2,000 claimants an average of $105,000 each. The board estimated it could eventually face up to 7,000 claims and pay out $870 million.

Under a 2001 deal, the church is paying a maximum of $170 million, much of it in properties donated to the state, while taxpayers pick up the bulk of the bill.

But the deal doesn't cover the cost of lawsuits filed by hundreds of alleged victims against individual parish priests and their superiors. In Ferns, Bishop Walsh last month said the diocese and its insurers had paid out nearly $3.75 million to settle 17 cases, but several more cases were still pending.