The former head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales is one of five senior clerics appointed today to monitor child protection procedures in the church in Ireland.
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, former Archbishop of Westminster who stepped down last year, was himself the subject of intense criticism over his handling of a paedophile priest.
In 1985, the Cardinal, then Bishop of the Arundel and Brighton Diocese, appointed Father Michael Hill to Gatwick Airport despite experts warning that he could be a danger to children.
Victims’ groups demanded the senior cleric’s resignation in 2002 when Hill was jailed and the Cardinal was forced to apologise to victims.
The Cardinal and churchmen from the US and Canada have been drafted in to investigate safeguarding procedures and protocols in the Catholic Church in Ireland, which has been rocked by two sickening reports which unveiled decades of abuse and cover-ups by church and state authorities.
Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor said he hoped the Apostolic Visitation will provide Pope Benedict with a thorough analysis of protections in Ireland.
“Putting the safeguarding of children and all vulnerable people at the heart of every aspect of the Church’s life is essential,” he added.
Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin – a campaigner for survivors and for reform in the church – said the Visitation was an important element in the broad process put in place by Pope Benedict to assist the renewal of the church in Ireland.
“Archbishop Martin welcomes in particular the announcement that the Visitation is being asked to evaluate the current response to victims and the quality of the assistance which the Church in Ireland owes to survivors,” his spokeswoman said.
The Visitation will begin in the four metropolitan archdioceses – Armagh, Dublin, Cashel and Emly and Tuam – before being extended to other dioceses.
In a statement from Rome, the Vatican said it will begin in the autumn.
“Through this Visitation, the Holy See intends to offer assistance to the bishops, clergy, religious and lay faithful as they seek to respond adequately to the situation caused by the tragic cases of abuse perpetrated by priests and religious upon minors,” the Vatican said.
“It is also intended to contribute to the desired spiritual and moral renewal that is already being vigorously pursued by the Church in Ireland.”
An Apostolic Visitation is a formal but personal process, initiated by the Holy See, to look into the welfare of a particular aspect of the Church.
The Vatican appointed Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor to Armagh; Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, to Dublin; Archbishop of Toronto, Thomas Christopher Collins, for Cashel and Emly and Archbishop of Ottawa, Terrence Thomas Prendergast, for Tuam.
Cardinal O’Malley, whose archdiocese is also recovering from clerical sex abuse scandals, said the Church must be unfailingly vigilant in protecting children and young people.
“Our ongoing efforts in the Archdiocese of Boston to ensure their safety will be helpful for the visitation,” said Cardinal O’Malley.
“It will also be important to respond to the concerns of the Catholic community and the survivors in the manner that will promote the process of healing.”
Archbishop Martin added: “Cardinal O’Malley’s experience and personal commitment render him particularly suited to bring ecclesial solidarity to the faithful and the clergy of the Archdiocese of Dublin at this moment, in which the Church in Dublin addresses the truth of a dark moment in its history and undertakes a period of conversion, purification and renewal.”
Irish bishops said they would co-operate fully with the Vatican’s plan.