DUBLIN (Reuters) - An envoy for Pope Benedict has apologized in person to child victims of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, a gesture that highlights the Vatican's concerns over its deteriorating status in Ireland.
Senior Vatican Cardinal Marc Ouellet travelled to the island of Lough Derg, in a remote corner of Ireland, on Tuesday to speak with victims in a meeting which lasted two hours.
The Church in predominantly Catholic Ireland has been rocked by a series of cases of child sex abuse stretching back decades and by church leaders' complicity in covering them up.
Ireland announced last year it would close its embassy to the Vatican, one of the Catholic country's oldest missions, after relations hit an all-time low over the Church's handling of the sex abuse cases.
The cardinal's visit to the island, a site of pilgrimages, coincides with the 50th International Eucharistic Congress, a gathering that takes place every four years and attracts tens of thousands of Catholics from around the world.
"In the name of the Church, I apologize once again to the victims, some of which I have met here in Lough Derg," Ouellet said.
"We have learned over the last decades how much harm and despair such abuse caused to thousands of victims. We learned too that the response of some Church authorities to these crimes was often inadequate and inefficient in stopping the crimes," he said.
The head of the Irish Catholic Church apologized last month to victims of sexual abuse but rejected calls to resign after a TV documentary reported the cleric failed to warn parents their children were being sexually abused by a priest in 1975.
Hundreds of cases of priests sexually and physically abusing youths have come to light in Europe and the United States in recent decades as new disclosures have encouraged long-silent victims to go public with their complaints.
The congress, which was last held in Ireland in 1932, opened on Sunday with the unveiling of a stone as an acknowledgment of the abuse of children with a prayer engraved on the Wicklow granite composed by a survivor of clerical abuse.
Reporting by Lorraine Turner; Editing by Angus MacSwan