An unprecedented top tier Vatican inquiry into the Church's handling of clerical sex abuse cases in Ireland, known officially as an "apostolic visitation,' will shortly visit Irish Catholic dioceses and orders of priests and nuns, where it will be headed by the former archbishop Cormac Murphy O'Connor.

The inquiry is scheduled to begin within weeks of Pope Benedict's visit to Britain this month. The visit is being seen as a clear sign that the Vatican no longer trusts the Irish Catholic establishment to clean up its own act, say abuse survivors groups and priests critical of the hierarchy's handling of paedophile priests.

Patrick Walsh, who was incarcerated in several Christian Brothers schools, including Dublin's notorious Artane, is the co-founder of Irish Survivors of Child Abuse (SOCA) and he said this week that the Vatican team's presence is a welcome development.

'In March this year, we handed Cardinal Sean Brady (the leader of Ireland's Catholics) a letter to the pope asking for Rome to come in and examine the entire church in Ireland. Now that is exactly what is going to happen we are certain this delegation from the Vatican will meet us and other survivors' groups,' Walsh said.

'Irish SOCA and other survivors' groups are excited over the apostolic visitation because it's the end of allowing the Irish hierarchy to handle the scandal and crises on their own. They are no longer being allowed to clean up their own mess or, to be more accurate, sweep it under the carpet.'

Gary O'Sullivan, editor of the Irish Catholic, told the press that Ireland had not seen such a high-powered delegation, some of whom are in line to become cardinals, since the Norman conquest.

'This is a very high-powered group of Vatican officials who are coming here to look over the workings of the church,' O'Sullivan said. 'You can compare it to top people in, say, IBM's global headquarters coming over to a country where  one of its branches is based to sort out some problems there.'