The head of the Catholic church in Ireland has used his annual St Patrick's Day sermon to apologise for his role in the cover-up of child abuse by one of the country's most notorious paedophile priests.
Cardinal Sean Brady is under intense pressure to resign after he admitted attending meetings where two 10-year-olds were forced to sign vows of silence over complaints against Father Brendan Smyth, who continued abusing children for another 18 years.
Brady said last weekend that he had taken notes during one meeting and interviewed the children in another. He referred the abuse claims to his superior but did not report them to the police, and it was only in 1994 that Smyth's appalling abuse came to light. Smyth died in prison 13 years ago, while serving 12 years for 74 sexual assaults on children.
Delivering his homily in Armagh's Catholic cathedral, Brady said he wanted to apologise to "all those who feel I have let them down".
"This week, a painful episode from my own past has come before me. I have listened to reaction from people to my role in events 35 years ago.
"I want to say to anyone who has been hurt by any failure on my part that I apologise to you with all my heart. I also apologise to all those who feel I have let them down. Looking back, I am ashamed that I have not always upheld the values that I profess and believe in."
Brady's confession and apology is the latest blow to the Catholic church in Ireland, which has been the subject of devastating criticism in two reports detailing collusion, cruelty and endemic abuse throughout its institutions.
Such analysis is likely to continue for some time. The archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, has said that a national inquiry – similar to the Murphy report examining abuse cases in his diocese – may be the only way for the church to move forward.
The pope weighed in this morning on the scandal, promising to issue guidance in the form of a pastoral letter to the Irish church on abuse by priests.
He acknowledged that the Irish church had been "severely shaken" by the crisis and said he was deeply concerned. He said he hoped his letter "will help in the process of repentance, healing and renewal".
Abuse scandals have also unsettled the Catholic church in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, today described as "a despicable crime" the misdeeds of priests in the pope's home country.
In her first public statement on the German scandal, Merkel told parliament: "I think we all agree that sexual abuse of minors is a despicable crime and the only way for our society to come to terms with it is to look for the truth and find out everything that has happened. The damage suffered by the victims can never fully be repaired."
Brady has yet to indicate that he will stand down over the latest controversy, but he said in his homily that he would consider his future.
Irish organisations representing victims of clerical child sex abuse have called for him to resign. Political figures have also expressed their alarm at Brady's behaviour.
The nationalist SDLP assemblyman and candidate for the new justice ministry in Northern Ireland, Alban Magennis, said it was time for Brady to step down. Last night, Northern Ireland's deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, said the cardinal should quit. McGuinness said that, like many Catholics, he had been dismayed over the latest revelations. "It is a very grave situation which is before the Catholic church and Catholic people in the north," he said. "I do think Cardinal Brady needs to consider his position."
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