By David Willey
BBC News, Rome
The head of the Church
in Ireland handed out copies of the papal letter
In an unusual Vatican document, Pope Benedict has issued a heartfelt personal apology to the people of Ireland and to thousands of victims of sexual abuse in past decades by Roman Catholic priests there.
He has also rebuked Irish bishops for "grave errors of judgement" in dealing with the problem.
"I can only share in the dismay and sense of betrayal that so many of you have experienced on learning of these sinful and criminal acts," the Pope wrote.
About 15,000 Irish people who attended church-run schools and institutions when they were children and claim to have been abused by priests and teachers have received so far over one billion euros in compensation from a state redress board.
The final number of victims and of the sums of money paid out by the Church and the Irish government could be much higher.
"You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry," Pope Benedict wrote.
Having already met victims of predator Catholic priests during visits to America and Australia, the Pope provided a rare personal insight into the ordeals suffered by children who were sexually abused.
"I know some of you even find it difficult to enter the doors of a church after all that has occurred," he wrote.
The pope's unprecedented eight-page pastoral letter devoted exclusively to the scandal and crisis in the Irish Church has broken a Vatican taboo.
Most Vatican documents relating to the scandal have hitherto been classified as confidential and have been marked only for the eyes of bishops.
The Pope announced that he is sending teams of inspectors to some Irish dioceses, to seminaries and to Irish religious orders to investigate how far they have strayed from the new rules laid down by Rome to try to curb the flood of cases of alleged priest paedophilia reaching the desks of Vatican officials during the past decade.
But the Pope admits that no-one imagines that what he calls "this painful situation" will be swiftly resolved.
The letter has not been welcomed by Ireland's main group of clerical abuse victims, One in Four.
They expressed deep disappointment that the Pope accepted no blame for what they call "a deliberate policy of the Catholic Church to protect sex offenders, thereby endangering children".
In Germany - where more than 250 cases of sexual abuse by priests have been reported to the Vatican - Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, who briefed the Pope recently on the situation in his homeland, commented that the scandal was not just an Irish problem.
The Pope's criticism of the sluggish reaction of the Irish hierarchy to the scandal was applicable in Germany also.
What the Pope's letter does not mention is also worth pointing out.
There is no indication of any sanctions being adopted against Ireland's 28 bishops for their "grave errors of judgement".
There is no mention either of the word "celibacy".
The rule - which forbids Catholic priests from marrying, and which dates not from early Christian times, but which became mandatory only during the Middle Ages - is being publicly questioned for the first time by some church heavyweights, such as the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schoenborn.
The taboo on any discussion at official level of the celibacy rule imposed by the late Pope John Paul II has been maintained by his successor, but increasingly a connection is being seen in some church quarters between celibacy and the psychological problems suffered by many priest paedophiles.
The Vatican has moved into full damage control mode, making wide use of new media outlets to put over its point of view during the latest revelations concerning sexual abuse scandals in the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, Italy and the world's most populous Catholic country, Brazil.
The Pope's pastoral letter, together with background information about the Catholic Church's plans to try to counter the blows inflicted by the scandals on its reputation as guardian of morals, has been posted on Twitter and also video-sharing site YouTube.