Six Catholic dioceses in Ireland that shielded child-molesting priests from the law in the past are protecting children from sexual abuse today, the Irish church's own investigatory arm reported Wednesday.
The findings of the National Board for Safeguarding Children represented the start of a project to test whether the Irish church _ long responsible for harboring pedophiles in the priesthood _ is keeping sex predators away from children now.
Bishops expressed remorse for past concealment of crimes.
"We are truly sorry for the terrible deeds that have been inflicted on so many by a small minority of priests," said Bishop Philip Boyce of the northwest diocese of Raphoe. He conceded that he and other bishops had placed the needs of victims below "the misguided attempt to protect the reputation of the church."
But a former police investigator and some victims accused the bishops of whitewashing their own records and turning a blind eye to unresolved cases.
Wednesday's reports found that 85 parish priests in the six dioceses had been accused of sexually abusing children since 1975, but only eight were convicted. Forty-one are alive today, 30 of whom have been defrocked or quit the priesthood.
Retired Detective Sgt. Martin Ridge, who investigated Raphoe's biggest known pedophile-priest case, accused the diocese of hiding or destroying its most damning documents.
Ridge gathered evidence from rape victims, mostly former altar boys, against priest Eugene Greene, who in 2000 was convicted of raping 26 boys and served eight years in prison. Police learned of Greene's abuse only because the priest sought to have one of his victims imprisoned for blackmail. He had demanded euro5,000 ($6,600) compensation.
Boyce, Raphoe's bishop since 1995, insisted the diocese was doing everything it could to help victims, including payouts totaling euro1.65 million ($2.25 million).
But Boyce said he has never had records of any sex-abuse complaint against Greene. He rejected accusations that either he or his predecessors destroyed them.
Ridge said it was "pathetic and not credible" for Boyce to claim this. He said a priest had warned the diocese in writing of Green's child abuse as far back as 1971, while the diocese itself sent Greene for counseling _ officially for alcohol abuse _ to a clinic that specialized in treating sex offenders.
Ridge said the Raphoe diocese under Boyce's leadership in the late 1990s gave him "no cooperation whatsoever" in solving what he called "the most horrific case I ever handled."
But Ian Elliott, chief executive of the board that produced Wednesday's broadly positive reports, said past abuses had been well documented by four government-ordered investigations and scores of criminal cases.
Elliott said the mission of his 4-year-old board was to ensure that the church in Ireland develops effective systems for identifying child abusers to police and health authorities. He said all six dioceses today were doing this "promptly and comprehensively."
An Irish support group for victims of sexual abuse, One in Four, welcomed the findings.
One in Four director Maeve Lewis said she understood that many victims wanted all investigations to explore the church's past cover-ups of crimes but that it was just as important to protect children now.
"The audits show that real progress has been made in putting in place child protection measures in the six dioceses," Lewis said. "In each case there has been a huge improvement in cooperation between the Catholic Church and the statutory agencies, and all allegations are now reported to the civil authorities."
But Colm O'Gorman, director of Amnesty International in Ireland, said the board's findings should be viewed with skepticism.
O'Gorman, who was sexually abused by a priest when he was an altar boy, said reports from the church-funded board are "published with the approval of the bishops concerned."
Elliott conceded that the church had given him no power to compel cooperation and the handover of records, only to publicize "details of any noncooperation."
Those subject to Wednesday's reports _ the Archdiocese of Tuam and the dioceses of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise, Derry, Dromore, Kilmore and Raphoe _ volunteered for scrutiny.
Elliott said he does expect his investigators to examine the child-protection policies of all 188 dioceses, religious orders and other Catholic institutions in Ireland over the next two years. Some of Ireland's worst abuse cases involved members of orders or staff of residential schools.
The board's first investigation in 2008 forced a former papal aide, John Magee, to resign as bishop of the County Cork diocese of Cloyne. It found he was ignoring the church's crime-reporting policies.
Irish bishops in 1996 pledged to begin reporting all suspected cases of child abuse to police. A senior Vatican official in 1997 warned the bishops that their policy undermined the church's own canon law, which sought to handle child-abuse complaints internally. The Vatican since has downplayed the significance of that letter.
Safeguarding Children reports, http://bit.ly/tFijhE
Ireland's child protection policy, http://bit.ly/t1CVNR
Irish church's counseling service for victims, http://www.towardshealing.ie/