Pope Apologizes, Orders Investigation of Irish Sex Abuse Scandals

Pope Benedict XVI issued Saturday a pastoral letter that offered apologies to victims of child sex abuse in the Irish church as well as proposals for how the church could move forward amid growing anger and continued revelations of abuse.

On the heels of what he called a "frank and constructive" meeting with Irish bishops and senior Vatican officials in Rome, the pope acknowledged the "often inadequate response to (sexual offenses) on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities."

"I have been deeply disturbed by the information which has come to light regarding the abuse of children and vulnerable young people by members of the Church in Ireland, particularly by priests," he wrote.

The head of the Roman Catholic Church urged victims and Irish Catholics alike to approach the scandal with "courage and determination," saying, "Perseverance and prayer are needed, with great trust in the healing power of God's grace."

He cited failings in the church's past, including "inadequate procedures for determining the suitability of candidates for priesthood ... insufficient human, moral, intellectual and spiritual formation in seminaries ... a tendency in society to favor the clergy ... and a misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church and the avoidance of scandal."

In the most emotional response to victims of abuse to date, Benedict wrote: "You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured.

"Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated ... no one would listen ... there was no escape from your sufferings.

"You find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church ... I openly express the shame and remorse we all feel."

He indicted the abusive clergy as having "betrayed the trust that was placed in you by innocent young people and their parents," saying they must "answer for it before Almighty God and properly constituted tribunals."

The pope lamented the damage done not only to individuals, but to the church at large and the public view of priesthood.

While he called upon abusers to repent and seek God's forgiveness, he did not demand that they turn themselves in to Church or secular law enforcement.

In a section devoted to bishops' handling of the matter, the pope chastised senior church officials for applying canon law to child abuse but recognized the difficulty in obtaining "reliable information."

Before closing his letter with words of support and a prayer for the Irish church, the pontiff proposed what he called "concrete initiatives to address the situation."

Among them was a call for all Catholics to pray for the Irish church and to keep its recovery and that of the victims foremost in their minds through the remainder of Lent.

He also announced an Apostolic Visitation to Ireland to check on parishes and seminaries and a mission to bring together Irish church officials, priests and representatives from other countries to "rediscover the roots of your faith."

The letter fell short of meeting provisions called for on Friday by the One in Four group, which offers support to victims of sexual abuse.

The group wanted the pope to acknowledge that the Church had "pursued a deliberate policy of cover-up, protecting sex offenders in order to avoid scandal, with no regard for the safety of children."

It also wanted an admission that the Church had silenced and punished priests and lay people who had tried to expose abuse.

And the group called for the resignation of senior members of the clergy.

Cardinal Sean Brady, the Catholic Church's head in Ireland, has apologized "with all my heart" for attending meetings in 1975 where child victims of a notorious pedophile priest were sworn to secrecy.

He has so far refused to bow to pressure from victims' groups to quit, but said on Wednesday that he would be reflecting carefully in the coming weeks.

There is growing anger in other countries over abuse scandals dating back decades, but which are only now coming to light.

For the pope, the controversy has come close to home, with a series of revelations in his native Germany.

In the latest revelation there, a victim of sexual abuse has accused the head of the German Catholic Church of having covered up for a predator priest by failing to notify prosecutors.

In a report to go out Monday on SWR public television, the victim accuses Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of having protecting a priest who preyed on at least 17 children during his days in a more junior position in Bavaria.

The pope himself has been caught up in the revelations, for as Archbishop of Munich Joseph Ratzinger in 1980, he approved the transfer of a suspected paedophile priest to his diocese to undergo therapy; the priest went on to abuse and was eventually convicted and jailed.

Some observers have given credit to Benedict for confronting the crisis, several times condemning pedophilia among clergymen and meeting abuse victims in Australia and the United States.

But with priests recently implicated in child sex abuse scandals in Austria, Brazil, Italy and the Netherlands, the contents of the pope's letter on the Irish affair is likely to be scrutinised by Catholics the world over.

AFP contributed to this report.