Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday accepted the resignation of another Irish bishop, leaving seven of Ireland's 26 Catholic dioceses without one and raising expectations of major cutbacks in the size of the Irish church following child-abuse scandals.
Seamus Hegarty offered his resignation two weeks ago as bishop of Derry, a northwestern diocese that straddles Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The 71-year-old Hegarty cited an unspecified "irreversible" illness as the reason for quitting four years before the church's normal retirement age.
Hegarty also is expected to feature in an upcoming church-authorized investigation into the cover-up of clerical child abuse in Hegarty's previous diocese, Raphoe. His successor in Raphoe, Bishop Philip Boyce, has received the report but has yet to publish it.
Earlier this year senior Catholic officials visited Ireland to investigate how church structures should be reformed following a wave of abuse scandals that have battered the church's standing in once-devout Ireland. One likely step is to merge dioceses and eliminate bishops' posts.
The Irish Catholic newspaper last week reported that Vatican officials want to cut the number of Irish dioceses, arguing that fewer bishops would mean more effective enforcement of child-protection policies. Eleven of Ireland's dioceses have fewer than 100,000 Catholics.
Of the six other Irish bishops to resign since 2009, three quit after being implicated in the church's decades of cover-ups of child-abuse complaints. Three others retired after reaching age 75. The failure of the Vatican to appoint any new bishops has fueled expectations of a major shake-up in the Irish church's management.
In a statement, Hegarty thanked the pope for accepting his resignation.
"I would ask for prayers that the Holy Spirit may guide the selection of the new bishop of Derry. On a personal level, I would entrust my health to the prayers of the people of the diocese," said Hegarty, who declined to specify his illness.
Irish bishops responded to the scandals by establishing an independent investigations unit, the National Board for Safeguarding Children, that is probing the extent of cover-ups diocese by diocese. The Vatican has never officially endorsed this effort.
The board's first report in 2009 forced one bishop, former papal aide John Magee, to resign from his position in the southwest County Cork diocese of Cloyne.
This year it has completed investigations into several new dioceses, including Raphoe, but the reports can be published only with the approval of each diocese's own bishop.
The Raphoe report is expected to focus on the diocese's handling of priest Eugene Greene, who sexually assaulted dozens of boys from the 1960s onward as the church transferred him from parish to parish in rural County Donegal.
Hegarty, who was Raphoe bishop from 1982 to 1994, has denied ever being told of Greene's crimes while he was in charge there. Greene in 2000 received a 12-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to 40 of 115 criminal counts of child abuse.
Hegarty's Derry diocese in 2009 said 18 current or former priests of the diocese faced child-abuse allegations.
Boyce says he intends to publish the Raphoe report soon but declined to specify a date.
Irish church's Board for Safeguarding Children: http://www.safeguarding.ie/
Diocese of Derry: http://www.derrydiocese.org/