By Conor Humphries
DUBLIN (Reuters) - A government-sponsored report said on Wednesday the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Ireland continued to conceal the sexual abuse of children by priests even after it introduced rules in the mid-1990s to protect minors.
Revelations of rape and beatings by members of religious orders and the priesthood in the past have shattered the dominant role of the Catholic Church in Ireland.
But the latest report into the handling of sex abuse claims in the diocese of Cloyne, in County Cork, shows that senior-ranking clergy were still trying to cover up abuse allegations almost until the present day.
"This is not a catalog of failure from a different era. This is not about an Ireland of 50 years ago. This is about Ireland now," Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald told a news conference.
The report, which focuses on 19 priests who allegedly abused children during a period from January 1996 to February 2009, lists how the diocese failed to report all sexual abuse complaints to the police and did not report any complaints to the health authorities between 1996 and 2008.
The bishop formerly responsible for the diocese, John Magee, falsely told the authorities that he was reporting all abuse allegations to the police, the report said.
He resigned in March last year after a Church investigation said his handling of abuse allegations had exposed children to risk.
Magee issued an apology to victims on Wednesday for his failure to report abuse and said he hoped the report would "provide the new beginning that we all had hoped for in 1996."
The government is to submit legislation to parliament that could jail clerics for up to five years if they fail to report to the authorities information about abuse of children, Justice Minister Alan Shatter said.
The report also criticized the Vatican as "entirely unhelpful" in describing guidelines on how to deal with abuse accusations as "merely a study document."
The government will decide soon whether to summon the papal nuncio, the pope's representative in Ireland, over the matter, Shatter said.
The report said that the Church's own guidelines would have protected children had they been implemented.
Complainants' pain was compounded by the fact that their abusers appeared to have suffered no sanctions after the abuse had been revealed.
One priest even officiated at the wedding of one of his victims.
"Without exception, (victims) felt that they had been let down by the institutional Church," the report said. "They were all of the opinion that in their meetings with higher Church officials, the sole concern was the protection of the institution rather than the wellbeing of children."
The report is the fourth by a government commission in Ireland. A 2009 report on widespread child abuse by priests in the Dublin archdiocese between 1975 and 2004 said the Church in Ireland had "obsessively" concealed the abuse.
The head of the Catholic Church in Ireland Cardinal Sean Brady issued an apology to express his "shame and sorrow" at what happened.
The release of the report marked "another dark day" for the Catholic church in Ireland, he said.
(Editing by Carmel Crimmins and Jon Boyle)
(Reporting by Conor Humphries)