DUBLIN – Pope Benedict XVI accepted the resignation Wednesday of Bishop John Magee, a former papal aide who stands accused of endangering children by failing to follow the Irish church's own rules on reporting suspected pedophile priests to police.
"To those whom I have failed in any way, or through any omission of mine have made suffer, I beg forgiveness and pardon," the 73-year-old Magee said in a statement.
The Vatican is on the defensive over ever-unfolding accusations that its leaders protected child abusers for decades in many countries, nowhere more so than Ireland, a predominantly Catholic country that once exported priests worldwide.
In Germany, where more than 300 former students in Catholic schools and choirs have come forward since January with abuse claims, the government announced Wednesday it will form an expert 40-member committee to investigate the allegations. It will be tasked with recommending legal reforms that could allow victims to pursue lawsuits and criminal complaints against church officials beyond Germany's current statute of limitations.
Irish society is still debating the merits of Saturday's unprecedented letter from Benedict apologizing for decades of unchecked child abuse by priests, nuns and other clerics. The letter criticized Irish bishops, promised a Vatican inspection of unspecified dioceses and religious orders in Ireland — but accepted no Vatican responsibility for promoting a culture of cover-up.
Benedict also has yet to accept resignation offers from three other Irish bishops who were linked to cover-ups of child-abuse cases in the Dublin Archdiocese, the subject of a government-ordered investigation that published its findings four months ago.
Magee, however, had been expected to resign ever since an Irish church-commissioned investigation into the mishandling of child-abuse reports in Cloyne ruled two years ago that Magee and his senior diocesan aides failed to tell police quickly about two 1990s cases.
The church and government suppressed publication of that report's findings until December 2008, when Magee faced immediate calls to quit from victims' rights activists and some parishioners. They accused him of ignoring an Irish church policy enacted in 1996 requiring all abuse cases to be reported to police.
Magee remained Cloyne bishop in name but transferred day-to-day responsibilities to his superior, Archbishop Dermot Clifford, in March 2009. Magee said Wednesday he submitted his resignation to the Vatican two weeks ago.
Cardinal Sean Brady, leader of Ireland's 4 million Catholics, offered prayers and praise for Magee.
"However, foremost in my thoughts in these days are those who have suffered abuse by clergy and those who feel angry and let down by the often-inadequate response of leaders in the church," Brady said.
Brady, a Vatican-trained canon lawyer, faces his own cover-up accusations. He has admitted collecting evidence in 1975 from two altar-boy victims of a notorious pedophile priest — but had both boys sign confidentiality agreements and never passed his information to police. That priest, Brendan Smyth, wasn't imprisoned until 1994 after molesting scores of children in Ireland and the United States. Last week, Brady said in his St. Patrick's Day sermon he felt ashamed.
Separately, the state investigators who reported on the Dublin cover-ups have turned their sole attention to Cloyne and are expected to report their own conclusions later this year. Magee said he would remain available to answer their questions.
The church's Cloyne report found that Magee and his diocesan deputies fielded complaints from parishioners about two priests from 1995 onward — but told the police nothing until 2003 and little thereafter. The report said Cloyne church authorities appeared solely concerned with helping the two priests, not protecting children of the diocese.
One priest, who was accused of molesting a younger priest when he was a teenager, was encouraged by Magee to resign. But the investigation found that the bishop shielded the abuser's identity from police — and considered such concealment "the normal practice" for the church.
The other priest, a career guidance counselor in a convent school, was accused by several teenage girls and grown women of molesting or raping them since 1995. One complaint came from a woman who had a consensual sexual relationship with the priest for a year — then saw him develop an intimate relationship with her 14-year-old son.
The church has declined to identify the two priests publicly by name. Neither has faced any criminal charges.
Magee, who was born in the Northern Ireland border town of Newry, served as a private secretary to three successive popes — Paul VI, John Paul I and John Paul II — from 1969 to 1982. He then served as the pope's master of ceremonies until 1987.