The Vatican on Tuesday told Irish bishops they had made excellent progress in enacting norms to protect children following decades of pedophile priest scandals, the first time the Holy See has ever endorsed the church's efforts to fight priestly sex abuse.
The Vatican released a summary of findings of its yearlong investigation into the Irish church ordered by Pope Benedict XVI after the uproar over widespread child abuse by priests and cover-ups by their superiors.
Victims of clerical abuse welcomed the findings and the Vatican's recommendations that bishops and religious superiors should continue devoting time to listening to victims and attending to their needs. But they criticized the Holy See for failing once again to take responsibility for its own role in the cover up, and warned that refusing to do so will just breed future scandals in other countries.
"It's a missed opportunity," said Maeve Lewis, executive director of One in Four, one of the main victim advocacy groups. "The Vatican could have used this document to acknowledge its responsibility in helping to create the culture that led to the purposeful cover-up of the sexual abuse of children, so that the prestige of the church was protected at the expense of children."
A decade of Irish fact-finding commissions into the scandals has produced four mammoth reports documenting how bishops shuttled known pedophiles throughout Ireland and to unwitting parishes in the United States and Australia.
They detailed how tens of thousands of children suffered wide-ranging abuses in workhouse-style residential schools, and how leaders of the largest diocese in Dublin didn't tell police of any crimes until forced by the weight of lawsuits in the mid-1990s.
The scandals have seriously eroded the faith in once-staunchly Roman Catholic Ireland and sparked an unprecedented diplomatic standoff between the Irish government and the Vatican _ Ireland closed its embassy to the Holy See _ after the prime minister accused Rome of having sabotaged efforts by Irish bishops to finally report abusers to police.
In its report Tuesday, the Vatican said its investigators saw for themselves "how much the shortcomings of the past" had caused an inadequate reaction "not least on the part of various bishops and religious superiors."
The report included several recommendations to improve the preparation of priests for a life of celibacy and to overcome a loss of trust by lay people in their pastors. It called for better screening of priestly candidates and for audits of personnel files of religious orders.
Most importantly, though, it praised the work of the Irish National Board for Safeguarding Children, the Irish church's own investigatory arm, in auditing bishops' adherence to the church's sex abuse norms. The report said bishops and religious superiors should continue to provide the church-funded board with sufficient personnel and funding.
And it said the Vatican investigators who looked at religious life in Ireland's four archdioceses, religious orders and seminaries were "struck" by the efforts of priests and lay people alike to implement the Irish norms and create safe environments for children.
"The results of these efforts were judged to be excellent," the investigators concluded.
In Ireland, senior bishops said they welcomed the Vatican's praise. What went unsaid, at least publicly, was that this represented the first time that any Vatican officials had ever offered official endorsement of those institutions and policies.
For many years, some bishops have privately complained that the Vatican's silence on the Irish church's child-protection efforts _ most strikingly in the pope's 2010 letter to the Irish people _ had encouraged dissenters to continue to keep abuse cases in-house.
For example, the Irish safeguarding board found in its first major investigation in 2008 into the southwest County Cork diocese of Cloyne that the bishop there had continued to cover up abuse committed by parish priests.
The Irish government organized its own judicial fact-finding probe into Cloyne cover-ups. Last year its report concluded that the Vatican had actively discouraged bishops from following their own child-protection rules, most notably citing a 1997 letter from the Vatican's then-diplomat to Ireland warning bishops they risked being overruled and embarrassed by the Vatican, if they didn't handle cases within the church according to its own canon laws.
The Vatican has claimed the 1997 letter wasn't an effort to sabotage the bishops' policies and was merely a reminder to follow church law _ a position rejected by the Irish government.
The timing of the Vatican's release of the report was somewhat questionable: Key government leaders are all outside the country, most notably Prime Minister Enda Kenny who is visiting the White House and Capitol Hill. Irish newspapers on Wednesday are certain to feature photos of Kenny and President Barack Obama and in-depth reporting of Ireland-U.S. diplomacy on their front pages, not necessarily the Vatican's yearlong investigation.
In other findings, the Vatican probe said a large number of priests, nuns and lay people held theological views at odds with church teaching, but it gave no specifics.
"It must be stressed that dissent from the fundamental teachings of the church is not the authentic path toward renewal," the report said.
Cardinal Sean Brady, the leader of Ireland's 4 million Catholics who himself has been implicated in covering up abuse, said all of Ireland's bishops associate themselves with the Vatican investigators' "sense of pain and shame."
"In expressing true sorrow and regret, we make our own heartfelt plea for forgiveness from the victims, and from God, for these terrible crimes," Brady told a news conference at Ireland's main seminary west of Dublin.
Brady has resisted calls to resign after he admitted in 2010 that he was involved in interviewing two children who were molested by a notorious rapist, the Rev. Brendan Smyth. The Smyth case, and the Irish attorney general's failure to promptly extradite him to Northern Ireland to face charges, triggered the collapse of the Irish government in 1994.
Brady has admitted he persuaded two of Smyth's accusers to sign forms promising to keep their allegations secret. He has insisted this was done to protect the children, not the church.
Associated Press writers Victor L. Simpson in Rome and Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin contributed to this report.