The Pope's letter on how senior Catholic clergy in Ireland mishandled cases of clerical child abuse was last night branded as “weak”.
Sunday Mass-goers heard Pope Benedict XVI's words of apology as his pastoral letter was read at Catholic churches in Ireland north and south.
The Pontiff told victims he was truly sorry for their suffering and admitted bishops had made grave errors of judgment in dealing with paedophile priests, but he stopped short of directly addressing well-documented cover-ups by senior clergy.
But as victims gave a mixed response to the Pope's letter, it was criticised by SDLP politician Declan O'Loan who described it as inadequate.
“I read the letter with a growing sense that another important opportunity had not been grasped properly.
“I welcome the apology from the Pope, though even that could have been worded more unambiguously,” he said.
“However, a full consideration of this issue required a thorough analysis of what went wrong and why it went wrong.
“That should have led to a clear indication to the Irish Church as to the steps necessary to prevent this kind of abuse, or any other kind of abuse, in the future. In that regard the letter is weak.”
It has now emerged that the Catholic church is to undertake an internal investigation into its handling of child sex abuse involving priests in Northern Ireland.
The probe will take the form of an “Apostolic visitation” of certain dioceses — which have yet to be identified — congregations were told at the weekend.
The lengthy process is to include seminaries and religious congregations, the Bishop of Down and Conor, Noel Treanor, confirmed in a a letter given out at Masses in the province yesterday.
In it, Bishop Treanor urged Catholics to discuss the contents of the Papal letter in groups, parishes and neighbourhoods over the period of Lent — until Easter — “as we prepare to undertake and respond to its proposals”.
He said the Pontiff’s letter should be read “with a view to renewing our own lives, the life of the Church and the moral fibre of our society”.
And Bishop Treanor also thanked those at diocesan and parish level “who give their time and skills to foster the safeguarding of children”.
The Pope’s letter said: “Arrangements for the visitation, which is intended to assist the local Church on her path of renewal, will be made in co-operation with the competent offices of the Roman Curia and the Irish Episcopal Conference. The details will be announced in due course.”
There was a mixed response from victims’ groups to the content of the Pope’s letter, which Masses were told yesterday would take 25 minutes to read out.
Maeve Lewis of the One in Four group said the cover-up aspect of paedophile priests by the Church hierarchy had not been sufficiently addressed, while Patrick Walsh of Irish Survivors of Abuse called the letter “unprecedented” and “encouraging”.
Ms Lewis said the Pope had not addressed the key issue, “which is the church policy, right to the very top of the Vatican, to cover up sex abuse scandals to protect paedophile priests at the expense of vulnerable children.”