The full extent of child abuse scandals threatening the Roman Catholic church in Ireland has emerged in a study by the archdiocese of Dublin which reveals that more than 100 of its priests have faced paedophile accusations since 1940.
The report, which constitutes the most serious admission by a senior cleric in the republic, has been published before a judicial committee of investigation is expected to begin taking evidence this month on the handling of complaints by the church. More than 350 children are said to have been sexually or physically abused in that period.
Commenting on the figures, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said it might be necessary to sell property to meet compensation bills and that sacrifices would have to be made to set right past injustices. "It's very frightening for me to see that in some of these cases, so many children were abused. It's very hard to weigh that up against anything," said Archbishop Martin, a former Vatican diplomat who was appointed in 2003.
"On the other hand, I know that the vast majority of priests don't abuse, that they do good work, that they're extremely upset and offended by what's happened."
The Catholic archdiocese of Boston was nearly bankrupted by a paedophile scandal three years ago. Its archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, was forced to resign and the ensuing compensation settlement cost the American archdiocese £67m. The archbishop's palace was sold and dozens of parishes forced to close.
Archbishop Martin's report shows that 105 civil actions have been brought against 32 priests in Dublin. Nearly two-thirds have been resolved and 40 are being pursued. The cost of settlements so far is €5.8m (£4m). The diocese has invested a further €2.5m in its child protection services.
The latest figures are the result of a two-year trawl through church archives. Last October, at the conclusion of an earlier government inquiry into abuse cases in the Catholic diocese of Ferns, the archbishop's office in Dublin said it was aware of accusations against 67 priests.
The sharp increase revealed in this week's report - which says the true figure is at least 102 priests - is in part due to the inclusion of complaints against members of religious orders working for the diocese in Dublin. The personnel files of 2,800 priests spanning the period 1940to 2006 have been examined. Allegations were said to have been made against 91 priests and suspicions raised about another 11 clerical officials.
"These figures include new allegations and information which have been brought to the attention of the diocese as a result of the independent review, the publication of the Ferns report and ongoing work by the Child Protection Service," the report said. "They do not include allegations and suspicions made regarding priests who carried out ministry within the ambit of their own religious order." Eight local priests have been convicted of abuse. No cases are pending.
The new committee of investigation into affairs in the Dublin archdiocese will be chaired by a senior judge, Yvonne Murphy. She will examine a number of representative abuse cases dating back as far as 1975.
"Many of these new cases are historical," a spokesperson for the archdiocese told the Guardian yesterday. "Anything new that has emerged will have been referred to the [police] authorities."
Ireland, a traditionally Catholic country, whose state broadcaster still plays the toll of the Angelus bell before its evening bulletins, has been rocked by church sex scandals over the past decade. They have involved mistreatment of abandoned orphans, child sex abuse and supposedly celibate priests fathering offspring.
The Catholic church's gradual coming to terms with sexual abuse has proved highly sensitive for the Vatican. The present Pope, Benedict XVI, was previously in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office responsible for investigating abuse claims.
The Ferns inquiry, published by the Irish government last year, identified more than 100 allegations of child sexual abuse against 21 priests in that diocese dating back to 1962.