Pope Benedict apologized on Saturday to victims of child sex abuse by clergy in Ireland and ordered an official inquiry there to try to stem a scandal gripping the Catholic Church which has swept across Europe.

The pope's pronouncement on abuse at Irish dioceses and seminaries was the most concrete step taken since a wave of cases hit Ireland, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. Victims in Ireland voiced deep disappointment it did not go further.

In a letter addressed to the people, bishops, priests and victims of child sex abuse in the overwhelmingly Catholic country, the pope did not make specific reference to Churches in other countries, particularly the pope's native Germany.

You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry ... I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel, he said in the unprecedented letter on abuse by Irish clergy, adding:

I can only share in the dismay and sense of betrayal that so many of you have experienced on learning of these sinful and criminal acts and the way the Church authorities in Ireland dealt with them.

A report commissioned by the Irish government had said one priest admitted abusing more than 100 children. Another said he had abused children every two weeks for more than 25 years.

The pope in the letter failed to address widespread calls in Ireland for a radical restructuring of the Church, nor did he say that bishops implicated in the scandal should resign.

Irish victims accused the pope of evading the question of Vatican responsibility in the long-awaited, eight-page letter.

We feel the letter falls far short of addressing the concerns of the victims, Maeve Lewis of the group One in Four told Reuters. She said it focused too narrowly on Irish Catholic leaders without scrutinizing the role of the Vatican.

There is nothing in this letter to suggest that any new vision of leadership in the Catholic Church exists, she said, adding it should have addressed the fate of head of the Church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, who victims want to quit.

Speaking after a mass on Saturday in Northern Ireland, Brady did not refer to resigning. I welcome this letter, he said.

The pope ordered what is known as an apostolic visitation of certain dioceses, seminaries and religious orders.

An apostolic visitation is an inquiry in which inspectors meet bishops, seminary or convent directors and local Church officials to review the way matters were handled in the past, to suggest changes and decide possible disciplinary action.


Benedict singled out Irish bishops for sharp criticism over their handling of abuse and pedophilia cases in the past.

It must be admitted that grave errors of judgment were made and failures of leadership occurred. All this has seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness, he told them.

Only decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency will restore the respect and goodwill of the Irish people toward the Church to which we have consecrated our lives, the pope said.

The letter, the first papal document devoted exclusively to pedophilia, follows the damning Irish government report on widespread child abuse by priests in the Dublin archdiocese.

The Murphy Report, published in November, said the Church in Ireland had obsessively concealed child abuse in the Dublin archdiocese from 1975 to 2004, and operated a policy of don't ask, don't tell.

In recent weeks, the Vatican has tried to contain damage as the string of scandals over sexual abuse of children by priests spread across Europe.

The latest scandal in Germany is especially sensitive for German-born Benedict, Munich's bishop from 1977 to 1981.

With opinion in Germany enraged as more cases emerged, the vice president of the Bundestag lower house, Wolfgang Thierse, called for him to apologize on behalf of those responsible.

Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, head of the German Bishops' Conference, said the letter was also an admonition to bishops in Germany, where more than 100 reports have emerged of abuse at Catholic institutions, including one linked to the prestigious Regensburg choir run by the pope's brother from 1964 to 1994.

We know that there have also been mistakes here in Germany, Zollitsch said. We, German bishops, have clearly acknowledged and admitted our mistakes. We cannot allow mistakes to be repeated and that's why we need complete clarification.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters that if he deems it necessary, the pope will find the appropriate way to also address the situation in Germany.

Child abuse scandals in the United States about eight years ago wreaked havoc on the reputation and finances of the U.S. Catholic Church, which paid some $2 billion in settlements.

U.S.-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said the letter was disappointing. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of predators are still in Church jobs. But the man who could oust them won't, said national outreach director Barbara Dorris.

Abuse cases have also been reported in Australia, Britain, Canada, France and Poland.

(Writing by Philip Pullella; additional reporting by Andras Gergely in Dublin and Tom Heneghan in Paris and Erik Kirschbaum in Berlin; editing by Peter Millership)