DUBLIN (Reuters) - The Catholic Church in Ireland concealed the sexual abuse of children by priests as recently as 2009, a decade after it introduced rules to protect minors, and the Vatican was complicit in the cover-up, a government report said on Wednesday.
"This is not a catalog of failure from a different era. This is not about an Ireland of 50 years ago. This is about Ireland now," Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald told a news conference.
Revelations of rape and beatings by members of religious orders and the priesthood in the past have shattered the dominant role of the Catholic Church in Ireland and rocked the church's reputation worldwide.
The latest report into the handling of sex abuse claims in the diocese of Cloyne, in County Cork, shows that senior-ranking clergy were still trying to cover up abuse allegations almost until the present day.
The report, which focuses on 19 priests who allegedly abused children during a period from January 1996 to February 2009, lists how the diocese failed to report all sexual abuse complaints to the police and did not report any complaints to the health authorities between 1996 and 2008.
The bishop formerly responsible for the diocese, John Magee, who had previously served as private secretary to three popes, falsely told the authorities that he was reporting all abuse allegations to the police, the report said.
He resigned in March last year after a Church investigation said his handling of abuse allegations had exposed children to risk.
Magee issued an apology to victims on Wednesday and said he hoped the report would "provide the new beginning that we all had hoped for in 1996."
The government is to submit legislation to parliament that could jail clerics for up to five years if they failed to report to the authorities information about the abuse of children, Justice Minister Alan Shatter said.
The report said the Vatican was "entirely unhelpful" for describing Irish church guidelines on how to deal with abuse accusations as "merely a study document."
"The church guidelines weren't applied and it is quite clear also that the Vatican were complicit in that," Shatter said. The government will decide soon whether to summon the papal nuncio, the pope's representative in Ireland, over the matter, he said.
"It just goes to show we cannot trust the words of the Church and that is a very sad thing to say," said Maeve Lewis, head of abuse survivor group One in Four.
"I don't believe for one minute that Cloyne is a rogue diocese, different from the others."
The report into Cloyne is the fourth by a government commission in Ireland. A 2009 report on widespread child abuse by priests in the Dublin archdiocese between 1975 and 2004 said the Church in Ireland had "obsessively" concealed the abuse.
In contrast to the Irish Church's secretive behavior, the hierarchy in Germany is taking bold steps to deal with its sexual abuse crisis, allowing independent investigators to search as far back as 1945 for undiscovered cases.
In Cloyne, complainants' pain was compounded by the fact that their abusers appeared to have suffered no sanctions after the abuse had been revealed.
One accusation of abuse against a girl aged nine was dismissed by investigators as mere "over-familiarity" despite the fact that the priest in question had admitted fondling girls in the past.
Another priest was ordained against the advice of a psychologist who found evidence of "deep sexual repression" and evidence of psychosis. No reports were made to the police despite complaints by three young men who said the priest got them drunk and abused them.
One priest even officiated at the wedding of one of his victims.
The father of one woman who died before her complaint could be prosecuted said his daughter's life had been destroyed.
"The good days were really just less bad than the bad days. There was no joy in her life. She was dead. She was dead for 23 years before she was pronounced," the man, whose identity was concealed, told Irish state broadcaster RTE.
(Editing by Carmel Crimmins and Robert Woodward)
Reporting by Conor Humphries; Editing by Jon Boyle