VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Vatican on Monday named prominent Churchmen to lead its official inquiry into sexual abuse of children by clergy in predominantly Roman Catholic Ireland.
The wide-ranging inquiry, which will begin in the autumn, will be headed by two cardinals and three archbishops from England, the United States and Canada.
Pope Benedict announced the inquiry, formally known as an "apostolic visitation," last March in a letter to the Irish people about the sexual abuse scandal in their country, which has led to the resignation of three Irish bishops.
A Vatican statement said the investigation will begin in four dioceses -- Armagh, Dublin, Cashel-Emly, and Tuam -- and then be extended to other dioceses.
It said the Vatican wanted "to respond adequately to the situation caused by the tragic cases of abuse perpetrated by priests" and help lead to "spiritual and moral renewal" in the Irish Church.
The prominence of the leaders of the inquiry -- which will involve visits to churches, seminaries and convents and the questioning of hundreds of people -- underscored the importance the pope attaches to the investigation and its results.
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Conner, emeritus archbishop of Westminster, will lead the investigation of Armagh and Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley of Boston will lead the inquiry into Dublin.
Toronto Archbishop Thomas Christopher Collins will look into Cashel-Emly and Ottawa Archbishop Thomas Prendergast was assigned Tuam.
Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, one of the most prominent Church figures, will lead an investigation into Irish seminaries, including the Pontifical Irish College in Rome.
DAMNING GOVERNMENT REPORT
The inquiry follows a damning Irish government report on widespread child abuse by priests in the Dublin archdiocese between 1975 and 2004. It said the Church in Ireland had "obsessively" concealed the abuse.
The report, issued last year, said one priest admitted abusing more than 100 children. Another said he had abused children every two weeks for more than 25 years.
The Vatican said the investigators "will set out to explore more deeply questions concerning the handling of cases of abuse and the assistance owed to the victims."
"They will also monitor the effectiveness of, and seek possible improvements to, the current procedures for preventing abuse ..." it said.
In a letter last March, the pope said the Irish people had "suffered grievously and I am truly sorry ... I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel."
O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston who will lead the investigation in Dublin, the most sensitive diocese, now heads an archdiocese which was morally devastated by its own sexual abuse crisis in 2002.
He is the successor to Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned in disgrace in 2002 over accusations he mishandled cases of sexual abuse by allowing priests to be moved from parish to parish.
"The Church must be unfailingly vigilant in protecting children and young people," he said. "It will be important to respond to the concerns of the Catholic community and survivors in the manner that will promote the process of healing."
The sexual abuse scandal has hit a number of other countries, including the pope's native Germany, the United States, and Austria.
Child abuse scandals in the United States about eight years ago wreaked havoc on the reputation and finances of the U.S. Catholic Church, which paid some $2 billion in settlements.