By David Willey
BBC News, Rome
"At this time of penance, we must begin with ourselves"
As the Roman Catholic Church prepares to celebrate the penitential rites of Lent, during which the faithful beg forgiveness for their sins, an unprecedented act of private penance has been held behind closed doors at the Vatican.
Pope Benedict spent two days in one of the Vatican's sumptuous marble audience halls closeted with 24 Irish bishops who both individually and collectively confessed to him their shortcomings and omissions in the paedophile clergy scandal which has shocked the entire Catholic world.
Cardinal Sean Brady, the Catholic primate of all Ireland, who led the delegation of bishops, said afterwards that "at this time of penance, we must begin with ourselves".
None of the bishops addressed the substance of the Vatican meeting at a hastily convened news conference at the offices of Vatican Radio.
The proceedings were - like most Vatican business - conducted in total secrecy, but we know from the official Vatican communique issued at the end of this extraordinary crisis meeting that the Pope strongly condemned the child abuse scandal which has been the subject of an official Irish government inquiry, the Murphy report.
The bishops promised the Pope that they were committed to co-operating with the civil authorities over the paedophilia scandal.
Pope Benedict did not spare his words in addressing his Irish bishops. He said that child abuse was a "heinous crime" as well as a "grave sin".
He lambasted the bishops for failing to act effectively over cases of sexual abuse of young people.
Seated at two long tables, the red-clad bishops were invited by the Pope to describe individually - in interventions limited to a maximum of seven minutes each - how they had dealt with cases of priestly paedophilia in their own dioceses, and to explain why so many cases had been systematically covered up during a period of decades.
Although four Irish bishops have tendered their resignations over the scandals, only one of them has had his resignation accepted by the Vatican.
Senior Vatican cardinals responsible for church discipline sat by the Pope's side to add their opinions on where responsibility lay for one of the worst scandals to have hit the Roman Catholic Church in modern times.
One Irish priest has admitted to abusing more than 100 children, while another confessed that he had abused minors systematically and regularly over a period of 25 years.
At stake is not only the credibility of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, but also a lot of Church money.
Compensation to victims of clerical sexual abuse paid out so far has been provided largely by Irish taxpayers.
The Vatican fears that just as in similar scandals of priestly paedophilia in other parts of the world, including the United States, claims by paedophilia victims in Ireland could eventually bankrupt several religious orders as well as individual dioceses.
'Preventive measures planned'
No word has come out of the meeting as to the possibility of a papal visit to Ireland in the near future.
Ireland has an unusually high proportion of bishops
Pope Benedict's travel diary for 2010 - which includes a visit in September to England and Scotland - is already full.
But he will be issuing a pastoral letter to be read out in all Catholic churches in Ireland before Easter, and a draft text of this document was discussed during the closed-door Vatican meetings.
According to Italian press reports this letter will offer "concrete and effective" ways to prevent any recurrence of similar scandals in the future.
The sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy has been reported from many countries, and dealing with these scandals has in fact been a worldwide problem for the Pope.
During recent visits to both the United States and Australia, Pope Benedict has specifically apologised to victims of priestly abuse in those countries.
But the crisis within the Irish church goes deeper perhaps than in any other country with a significant Catholic population.
The pope wants "structural change"' in the organisation of his Church in Ireland, which has an unusually high number of bishops in proportion to its population.
In comparison Germany, with a population about nine times greater, has almost the same number of bishops as Ireland.
But the idea of drastically reducing the number of Irish bishops in a radical administrative reorganisation of a church structure which has not basically changed since the Middle Ages appears to hold little appeal to the current leaders of Ireland's numerous Catholic dioceses.