Cardinal Seán Brady said he had been horrified by the unspeakable crimes and hoped a public inquiry would shed light on the Church’s dark history.
He said: “You have been tasked with inspecting a dark chapter in our history. But I am confident that your patient and diligent work will cast a welcome light of truth on this situation and hopefully lead to a better future.”
The 75-year-old, who last year resigned as head of the Catholic Church in Ireland on age grounds, was giving evidence to the North’s long-running Historical Abuse Inquiry at Banbridge, Co Down.
The cleric was fiercely criticised after it emerged that he had attended meetings in 1975 where two teenage victims of paedophile priest Fr Brendan Smyth were sworn to secrecy.
Their evidence was never handed over to police, allowing the west Belfast priest to continue abusing children until he was jailed in 1994.
Cardinal Brady, then priest and teacher Fr John Brady, was a note-taker during the secret meeting at St Malachy’s Priory in March 1975.
Even though he studied canon law in Rome, he had no experience of dealing with child sex abuse scandals. It did not cross his mind to inform the civil authorities, the Cardinal revealed.
“I wasn’t aware of Smyth’s history which has now emerged,” he said. “It just did not cross my mind to consider informing the statutory authorities. Now, of course it is the first thing that we would do.
“But, for various reasons it was considered that the in-house way of doing it ourselves was more prompt, we thought more effective, but it was not; it did not involve the boys having to take the witness stand. We thought that we would deal with this ourselves.”
He told the inquiry he was motivated by an anxiety to stop Smyth and believed everything he heard from victims. However, he acknowledged the Church response was poor with little or no consideration for those who had been abused.
There was a shroud of secrecy designed to protect the reputation of the Church, he said.
“These were unspeakable crimes,” said Cardinal Brady. “There was a shroud of secrecy and confidentiality with a view not to destroying the good name of the Church.
“The scandal that somebody who was ordained to serve people should so abuse the trust for their own pleasure was appalling and it was.
“To offset that, the scandal was kept a secret — very, very secret. Everybody involved would be bound to secrecy too.”
On reflection, the cardinal also conceded that the secret inquisition would have been intimidating for a 14-year-old and that some of the 30 questions were “inappropriate”.
Cardinal Brady added: “I once again offer an unreserved apology to all those who suffered as a result of the crimes of Brendan Smyth.
“I commend the courage of [the victim] who came forward in 1975. I believed everything he said and set about getting a prompt and effective response to his complaint. Unfortunately the response that emerged was neither adequate or effective. It was partly effective. For this I am truly sorry.”
Retired judge Anthony Hart is leading the Historical Abuse Inquiry, one of the UK’s largest inquiries into physical, sexual, and emotional harm to children at homes run by the Church, state, and voluntary organisations.
One week was set aside to deal with the activities of Smyth and to examine whether systemic failings allowed him to get away with his crimes for so long.
The serial child molester frequented Catholic residential homes and groomed children in family settings after befriending their parents.
Instead of reporting him to the civic authorities, Smyth was moved between parishes, countries, and even continents where he continued to target children. The only sanctions imposed were temporary bans on hearing confessions and celebrating mass.
Mr Hart said: “Brendan Smyth was able to abuse children in many places — not just in residential homes. Schools and families and other places outside Northern Ireland and outside the Republic of Ireland whether it was Wales, Scotland, or the United States of America.
“He was able to perpetuate his crimes because of his position as a priest.”
Many of Smyth’s victims had packed into the small courtroom for the hearing.
On Wednesday, it emerged that gardaí in Dublin knew about Smyth’s paedophilia as far back as 1973 and a senior figure from the Norbertine order also claimed his poisonous legacy had effectively ruined them.
Earlier, it was revealed that Smyth told a doctor in 1994 that the number of victims he sexually assaulted could run into the hundreds.
The inquiry was formally established in January 2013 by the Northern Ireland Executive.