Pope Benedict XVI has stated the abuse of children by Irish clergy was 'sinful and criminal' and has blamed "inadequate procedures for determining the suitability of candidates" for the priesthood as the main issue.

However, he did not say whether or not bishops should resign for past failures to protect victims or indicate that he would meet victims of abuse.

In his pastoral letter to Irish Catholics the Pope said he was 'truly sorry' for the abuse victims and he expressed shame at the deeds committed.

"I have been deeply disturbed by the information which has come to light regarding the abuse of children and vulnerable young people by members of the Church in Ireland, particularly by priests and religious. 

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

The Pope said problems with how priests were chosen for their life's work were at the root of the issue.

"Inadequate procedures for determining the suitability of candidates for the priesthood and the religious life; insufficient human, moral, intellectual and spiritual formation in seminaries and novitiates; a tendency in society to favor the clergy and other authority figures; and a misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church and the avoidance of scandal, resulting in failure to apply existing canonical penalties and to safeguard the dignity of every person. 

“Urgent action is needed to address these factors, which have had such tragic consequences in the lives of victims and their families, and have obscured the light of the Gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing.

He also said some bishops had failed 'at times grievously' to apply canon law to the crime of child abuse. Addressing abusive priests directly he stated they "should not despair of God's mercy.

 "I urge you to examine your conscience, take responsibility for the sins you have committed, and humbly express your sorrow.  Sincere repentance opens the door to God’s forgiveness and the grace of true amendment.  By offering prayers and penances for those you have wronged, you should seek to atone personally for your actions.  Christ’s redeeming sacrifice has the power to forgive even the gravest of sins, and to bring forth good from even the most terrible evil.  At the same time, God’s justice summons us to give an account of our actions and to conceal nothing.  Openly acknowledge your guilt, submit yourselves to the demands of justice, but do not despair of God’s mercy. “

Pope Benedict said Catholics should reflect on what he called 'Ireland's often heroic contribution' to the church and to humanity so that it would lead to honest self-examination and renewal.

Addressing priests and religious who had abused children, he said they had betrayed the trust placed in them by innocent young people and their parents.

He said: 'You must answer for it before Almighty God and before properly constituted tribunals.'

He urged abusers to examine their conscience and take responsibility for the sins they had committed. This would open the door to 'God's forgiveness'.

 Cardinal Sean Brady, primate of Ireland who has become embroiled in the issue himself after it was revealed he had not acted on evidence of child abuse in 1975 stated: "I welcome this letter. I am deeply grateful to the Holy Father for his profound kindness and concern.

“It is evident from the Pastoral Letter that Pope Benedict is deeply dismayed by what he refers to as 'sinful and criminal acts and the way the Church authorities in Ireland dealt with them.'”

Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin described the letter as "a further step in the process of renewal and healing.”

He added: “I welcome the Pope's expression of apology and his recognition of the suffering and betrayal experienced by survivors.

'The Pope recognizes the failures of Church authorities in how they dealt with sinful and criminal acts.”