DUBLIN — Roman Catholic Church leaders in Dublin spent decades sheltering child-abusing priests from the law and most fellow clerics turned a blind eye, an investigation ordered by Ireland's government concluded Thursday.
Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who handed over more than 60,000 previously secret church files to the three-year investigation, said he felt deep shame and sorrow for how previous archbishops presided over endemic child abuse, yet claimed afterward not to understand the gravity of their sins.
Martin said his four predecessors in Ireland's capital, including retired Cardinal Desmond Connell, must have understood that priests' molestation and rape of boys and girls "was a crime in both civil and canon law.''
"For some reason or another they felt they could deal with all this in little worlds of their own. They were wrong, and children were left to suffer."
Thursday's 720-page report focused on why church leaders in the Dublin Archdiocese, home to a quarter of Ireland's 4 million Catholics, did not tell police about a single abuse complaint against a priest until 1995.
By then, the investigators found, successive archbishops and their senior deputies — among them qualified lawyers — already had compiled confidential files on more than 100 parish priests who had sexually abused children since 1940. Those files had remained locked in the Dublin archbishop's private vault.
The investigators also dug up a paper trail documenting the church's long-secret insurance policy, taken out in 1987, to cover potential lawsuits and compensation demands. Dublin church leaders publicly denied the existence of the problem for a decade afterward but since the mid-1990s have paid out more than $15 million in settlements and legal bills.
The report cited documents showing how church officials learned about some cases only when devoutly Catholic police received complaints from children or their parents but handed responsibility back to church leaders to sort out the problems themselves.
Thursday's report detailed "sample" cases of 46 priests who faced 320 documented complaints, although the investigators said they were confident that the priests had abused many more children than that. They cited testimony from one priest who admitted abusing more than 100 children, and another priest who said he abused a child approximately every two weeks for 25 years.
Just 11 of the 46 ultimately were convicted of abusing children — typically decades after church leaders learned of their crimes — while two others are scheduled to face Dublin criminal court actions within months. Fourteen are dead, and most of the rest have been defrocked or barred from parish duties. Just six are still active priests.
It was not until 1995 that then-Archbishop Connell allowed police to see church files on 17 clerical abuse cases. At that time, Connell actually held records of complaints against at least 29 priests, the report found. Connell later pursued a lawsuit against the investigators in an abandoned bid to keep them from seeing more than 5,500 files documenting the church's knowledge of abusive priests.