DUBLIN Irish bishops said they were "ashamed, humbled and repentant" about widespread abuse of children at Catholic-run schools after victims marched silently to the Irish parliament Wednesday to demand justice.
Disclosures of floggings, slave labor and gang rape in Ireland's now defunct system of industrial and reform schools have shamed Irish people, particularly older ones who did not confront what a report last month described as endemic abuse.
"Heinous crimes were perpetrated against the most innocent and vulnerable, and vile acts with life-lasting effects were carried out under the guise of the mission of Jesus Christ," the Irish Bishops' Conference said in a statement.
The leaders of the Catholic Church in Ireland met Pope Benedict Friday and he told them to make sure justice was done for all, "to bring healing to the survivors of abuse" and to prevent abuse from happening again, the bishops said.
The statement came hours after hundreds of victims of abuse, carrying children's shoes and wearing white ribbons symbolizing their lost youth, marched to parliament accompanied by thousands of other protestors.
"It was as if you were inside prison and when you come out you don't talk about it," said Marina Permaul, 66, who was brought up "military style" by nuns in the western county of Galway.
"You don't talk about it even to your children," said Permaul, who arrived from London to attend the march. "You're too ashamed of it all, and in any case would they believe you? You didn't dare speak out against a religious order."
Organizers of the march, held to coincide with a parliamentary debate on the report, have expressed anger that the debate was postponed to allow parliament to deal with a motion of confidence in the government.
"It really emphasizes again that the state hasn't actually understood one iota of what it was like for 165,000 children who went through 216 institutions," said victim Christine Buckley.
The inquiry, chaired by High Court Justice Sean Ryan, criticized religious authorities for covering up the crimes and the Department of Education for colluding in the silence. It noted children were also preyed upon by foster parents, volunteer workers and employers.
The report did not identify abusers after a successful legal challenge by the Christian Brothers, which was the largest provider of residential care for boys in Ireland.
A series of scandals involving predatory priests has dislodged the Roman Catholic Church from its once pre-eminent position in Irish society but there is anger that many have avoided jail.
Religious orders identified in the report have come under pressure to pay more compensation to victims. A 2002 deal capped their contribution to a redress fund at 127 million euros ($177 million). The total bill is expected to top 1 billion euros.
Buckley said the fund was a failure and she has called for its awards to be reviewed and a trust fund set up instead.
"The whole idea of the redress board was another form of institutional abuse. It is silent, it is behind closed doors and there is punishment if you reveal your award," said Buckley, who set up the Aislinn Center, which provides support for survivors.
A further report by a commission investigating complaints of child sexual abuse involving Catholic priests in the Dublin Archdiocese from the 1970s is due to be completed in coming weeks.
In the United States, the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to pay $660 million to 500 victims in the largest compensation of its kind.
(Additional reporting by Carmel Crimmins; editing by Philippa Fletcher)