Page last updated at 17:02 GMT, Thursday, 1 April 2010 18:02 UK

Police team to probe priest abuse of children

Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr
Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr said the team will report to him

The police in Northern Ireland are to establish a dedicated investigation team to look into cases of alleged child abuse by Catholic priests.

The decision was announced at a Policing Board meeting on Thursday.

Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr said the team was being established "in light of the number and nature of recent allegations".

Mr Kerr said the unit would be led by a senior detective and would report directly to him.

He said the police were in talks with officials from the Department of Health, Social Service and Public Safety about the complex issues involved, and said there were responsibilities for other agencies.

"If you look at the out-workings of the Ryan Commission in the (Irish Republic), it's more than just a policing issue," he said.

"The Ryan Commission looked at addressing the effects of abuse, particularly the welfare and support for victims, preventing and reducing current and future abuse, dealing with offenders. Compensation for victims as well, this is a massive issue.

"Our responsibility is reasonably straightforward, but is two-fold. One is the investigation of offences reported, but we have to prioritise against current and future risks."

Mr Kerr also said the police supported the idea of a state inquiry into the nature and extent of child abuse in Northern Ireland and suggested that it be independently chaired at Northern Ireland Executive level.

He added that a decision from the executive on the nature of any inquiry was vital, as it would "have implications for the police handling of allegations".

Mr Kerr said there were a number of current police investigations, although he would not specify how many.

He also told the board, that in 29 cases where clerical abuse had been reported to them, the alleged abuser was dead.

The move has been welcomed by the Bishop of Down and Connor, Dr Noel Treanor.

"In this matter of the sexual abuse of of children, minors or vulnerable persons, the only way in which this plight, in both church and society, can be addressed is by inter-agency and inter-departmental co-operation," Bishop Treanor said.

"The policy of this diocese is that where an allegation is made we hand over and have done, any documentation that is requested, without reserve.

"The most recent allegations date to 15 years plus, all our cases are historic."

Papal letter

Last month, Pope Benedict XVI apologised to victims of child sex abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland.

In a pastoral letter to Irish Catholics, he acknowledged the sense of betrayal in the Church felt by victims and their families.

The Pope said there had been "serious mistakes" among bishops in responding to allegations of paedophilia.

Fr Brendan Smyth
Smyth was convicted of dozens of offences

The pastoral letter was the first statement of its kind by the Vatican on the sexual abuse of children.

It follows revelations of paedophilia within the Irish Catholic Church, which have rocked the institution.

Scandals involving Catholic priests have been reported in other countries, including the Pope's native Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Austria and the US.

Although the Pope said Vatican officials would visit Ireland to inspect some dioceses, he did not call for any restructuring of the Church in Ireland.

He also did not call for the resignation of any bishops, although a few have already volunteered to leave their posts.

The head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, has resisted calls to resign over his handling of abuse allegations in the 1970s that saw victims of paedophile priest Fr Brendan Smyth sign confidentiality agreements.

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