DUBLIN -- The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland covered up the sexual abuse of young people by priests over several decades in one diocese, a state probe has concluded.
The 270-page report, which stems from an investigation begun in 2002, was published yesterday. It details the Church's handling of 100 allegations of abuse against 21 priests in the diocese of Ferns in County Wexford dating to the mid-1960s.
Among the allegations are accusations of rape.
''The revelations make for very uncomfortable reading. The pages retelling the pain experienced by those who have suffered, are especially heartbreaking," the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, Sean Brady, said in a statement.
''I apologize to all those people who have suffered lasting hurt at the hands of abusers in the Church. . . . The betrayal of trust is horrendous. Today the Church is ashamed of its past failings regarding child protection," he added.
Restoring trust in a Catholic Church seriously tarnished by a string of sex abuse scandals around the world is one of the biggest tasks facing Pope Benedict XVI, who was chosen leader of the Church's 1.1 billion members.
In the United States, where bishops moved priests known to have abused minors to new parishes rather than defrocking them, some dioceses have been forced to file for bankruptcy protection against the lawsuits of victims seeking compensation.
The Ferns probe found that for 20 years a bishop in charge of the rural diocese in Ireland's southeast did not expel priests against whom abuse allegations were made but simply transferred them to a different post or diocese temporarily.
The report criticized the bishop's decision to ordain ''clearly unsuitable men into the priesthood" when he knew or ought to have known they might abuse children.
''It is clear from the report that effective action was not taken to protect vulnerable children over a period many years," Minister for Children Brian Lenihan said in a statement.
He said the government was studying recommendations made in the report, which has been passed to the Director of Public Prosecutions, that laws on child abuse be strengthened.
The findings are likely to reignite public anger in mostly Catholic Ireland after a string of clerical sex abuse scandals.
John Kelly, founder of the Survivors of Child Abuse support group, said the inquiry had not been given enough powers and said the accused must be prosecuted.
''This is a bit of a whitewash," he said. ''No one's named, no one's shamed. No one's likely to face any justice."
''We need to prosecute them."
Yesterday's report said that of the 11 accused priests who are still alive, three have been excluded from the priesthood by the Vatican and seven of the remaining eight have stood aside temporarily from active service. The eighth is retired.
The inquiry was set up following the resignation in 2002 of the Bishop of Ferns, Brendan Comiskey, when it emerged he had been aware of the activities of an abusive priest in the diocese, south of Dublin, but failed to protect the victims.
The priest, the Rev. Sean Fortune, committed suicide in 1999 after he was charged with multiple sex offenses.