RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In a highly usual move, Pope Benedict has summoned more than two dozen bishops from Ireland. He wants to hear personally their explanations for Ireland's massive clerical sex abuse scandal. The meetings being held today and tomorrow at the Vatican could lead to a major shake-up in the Irish Church hierarchy for what has been described as a culture of cover-up. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Two months ago, an investigation into the Dublin diocese known as the Murphy Report revealed that the Irish Catholic Church had been covering up crimes by dozens of pedophile priests against hundreds of young people for decades.
The Murphy Report came just seven months after another investigation revealed chronic beatings, rapes, near-starvation and humiliation of 30,000 children in state-run schools and orphanages all run by the Catholic Church.
Bishop Joseph Duffy, spokesman for the Irish Bishops Conference, acknowledges that the meetings with the pope will have to lead to major changes in the Irish church.
Bishop JOSEPH DUFFY (Spokesman, Irish Bishops Conference): This is not just a cosmetic exercise, as some people might seem to think. If anything has come out of this, it's the failure on the part of all of us, including the bishops, to, you know, not do as we're expected to do.
POGGIOLI: The Murphy Report cites one priest who admitted molesting more than 100 children, and another who said he molested children at least once every two weeks for 25 years.
In devoutly Catholic Ireland, the impact of the two reports on clerical sex abuse has been devastating, and attendance at Sunday mass has dropped sharply. Bishop Duffy.
Bishop DUFFY: The very first concern has to be the question of survivors, and the enormous injustice and cruelty that they have suffered.
POGGIOLI: Bishop Duffy said each bishop will have seven minutes to speak directly before the pope and give his version of events.
Bishop DUFFY: I think the casualty in all of this has been the truth, and we do accept that, that the fullness of truth must come out, everything must be laid on the table.
POGGIOLI: But victims' groups are demanding concrete actions. Four bishops have offered resignations, and the pope has so far accepted one of them.
The victims group One in Four has called for the resignation of other bishops who engaged in what it calls a culture of cover up.
Victims' groups say they will seek damages that could undermine the Irish Church's finances. The Irish church is a big player in the country's economy. It runs 92 percent of the state-owned primary schools and owns some of Ireland's biggest hospitals. The group One in Four has also complained of Vatican obstruction.
The Murphy Report said specifically that Vatican officials refused to deal directly with investigators, saying they had not gone through the proper diplomatic channels. Bishop Duffy believes Pope Benedict has known what was going on in Ireland for a long time.
Bishop DUFFY: It's my information that the pope is very well clued in on this whole issue, that even before he became pope at all, that he had access to the documentation, that he knew exactly what was in the documentation, and that he wasn't living in a fool's paradise, that he knew exactly what - where the issues, and the total complexity of them.
POGGIOLI: Just as the Irish bishops were preparing to come to Rome, the Catholic Church has been rocked by another sex abuse scandal in the pope's native Germany. The abuse allegedly occurred in Jesuit schools in Berlin, Hamburg, Bonn and other cities. This is the first time a sex abuse scandal has hit a priestly order considered the intellectual elite of the Roman Catholic Church.
Father Stefan Dartmann, head of the Jesuit order in Germany, said an immense tragedy is now becoming apparent.
Observers say the German Catholic Church is just at the start of a painful process that is all too familiar to the Irish and American churches.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.