VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict apologized on Saturday to victims of child sex abuse by clergy in Ireland and ordered an official inquiry there to try to stem a scandal gripping the Catholic Church which has swept across Europe.
The pope’s pronouncement on abuse at Irish dioceses and seminaries was the most concrete step taken since a wave of cases hit Ireland, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands.
Victims in Ireland voiced deep disappointment it did not go further, and a U.S.-based Catholic group said it should have addressed abuses throughout the Church, not just in Ireland.
In a letter addressed to the people, bishops, priests and victims of child sex abuse in the overwhelmingly Catholic country, the pope did not make specific reference to Churches in other countries, particularly his native Germany.
“You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry ... I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel,” he said.
“I can only share in the dismay and sense of betrayal that so many of you have experienced on learning of these sinful and criminal acts and the way the Church authorities in Ireland dealt with them.”
A report commissioned by the Irish government had said one priest admitted abusing more than 100 children. Another said he had abused children every two weeks for more than 25 years.
The pope in the letter failed to address widespread calls in Ireland for a radical restructuring of the Church, nor did he say that bishops implicated in the scandal should resign.
Irish victims accused the pope of evading the question of Vatican responsibility in the long-awaited, eight-page letter.
“We feel the letter falls far short of addressing the concerns of the victims,” Maeve Lewis of the group One in Four told Reuters. She said it focused too narrowly on Irish Catholic leaders without scrutinizing the role of the Vatican.
“There is nothing in this letter to suggest that any new vision of leadership in the Catholic Church exists,” she said, adding it should have addressed the fate of head of the Church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, who victims want to quit.
Speaking after a mass on Saturday in Northern Ireland, Brady did not refer to resigning. “I welcome this letter,” he said.
The pope ordered what is known as an “apostolic visitation” of “certain” dioceses, seminaries and religious orders.
An apostolic visitation is an inquiry in which inspectors meet bishops, seminary or convent directors and local Church officials to review the way matters were handled in the past, to suggest changes and decide possible disciplinary action.
Benedict singled out Irish bishops for sharp criticism over their handling of abuse and pedophilia cases in the past.
“It must be admitted that grave errors of judgment were made and failures of leadership occurred. All this has seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness,” he told them.
“Only decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency will restore the respect and goodwill of the Irish people toward the Church,” the pope said.
The letter follows the damning Irish government report on widespread child abuse by priests in the Dublin archdiocese between 1975 and 2004. The report said the Church in Ireland had “obsessively” concealed the abuse.
In recent weeks, the Vatican has tried to contain damage as the string of scandals over sexual abuse of children by priests spread across Europe.
The latest scandal in Germany is especially sensitive for German-born Benedict, Munich’s bishop from 1977 to 1981.
With opinion in Germany enraged as more cases emerged, the vice president of the Bundestag lower house, Wolfgang Thierse, called for him to apologize on behalf of those responsible.
Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, head of the German Bishops’ Conference, said the letter was also an “admonition” to bishops in Germany, where more than 100 reports have emerged of abuse at Catholic institutions, including one linked to the prestigious Regensburg choir run by the pope’s brother from 1964 to 1994.
Abuse cases have also been reported in the United States, Australia, Britain, Canada, France and Poland.
Switzerland became the latest country to become embroiled when the Swiss Catholic Church said on Saturday it was investigating around 10 allegations of abuse by clergy, including some acts committed since 2001.
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.
Voice of the Faithful, a reform group set up in 2002 in response to abuse cases in Boston, said the pope’s letter incorrectly suggested that abuse was confined to Ireland when in fact “it is a Catholic problem and must be fixed.”
“I had high hopes for this pastoral letter,” said Dan Bartley, the group’s president. “I see now the Church still refuses to hold accountable bishops who endanger children.”
Writing by Philip Pullella; additional reporting by Andras Gergely in Dublin, Tom Heneghan in Paris, Erik Kirschbaum in Berlin, Jason Rhodes in Zurich, Ross Kerber in Boston; editing by Dominic Evans