DUBLIN — The besieged leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland said Wednesday he was "ashamed" of the role he had played decades ago in handling accusations of child sex abuse against a priest who went on to sexually assault scores of children, and hinted that he might bow to calls for his resignation.
"I want to say to anyone who has been hurt by any failure on my part that I apologize to you with all my heart," Cardinal Sean Brady said in an extraordinary St. Patrick's Day sermon in Northern Ireland. "I also apologize 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."
He delivered his broad apology two days before Pope Benedict XVI is due to issue a letter to Irish bishops addressing the abuse crisis. In unscripted remarks during his weekly audience Wednesday, the pope said the letter's release on Friday would help "repentance, healing and renewal."
The widening scandal has rocked Ireland, one of the world's most heavily Catholic countries, and roiled dioceses across Europe in recent weeks, even reaching into the Vatican with questions about Benedict's role in the handling of an abuse case while he was an archbishop in Germany.
Brady has faced numerous calls for his resignation in recent days, in the wake of revelations that he took part in an abuse investigation in 1975 in which 10-year-old and a 14-year-old were forced to sign secrecy oaths as part of the church's inquiry into their accounts. Brady never went to the police, and the priest, the Rev. Brendan Smyth, was arrested in the 1990s and admitted to molesting and raping about 100 children in Ireland and the United States.
In a interview with Irish state radio on Monday, Brady answered the resignation calls — some from within the Irish clergy, others from victims of child abuse, parents and advocacy groups — by saying that he was "not a manager and not a bishop" when, as a 36-year-old priest then working as a secondary school teacher, he was asked by his bishop to participate in interviews with the two children who said they had been abused by Smyth.
Events in Rome, coupled with the cardinal's deeply apologetic tone in his sermon, led to widespread speculation in Ireland that he would step down, possibly as early as today.