The Roman Catholic Church's much-criticized leader in Ireland announced Friday that the Vatican has approved his successor, a reform-minded priest who has been outspoken on the need for more church accountability on child sex abuse.
Cardinal Sean Brady, who resisted calls to resign in 2010 despite being implicated in covering up abuse of children, unveiled Monsignor Eamon Martin as his eventual successor on the front steps of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Armagh, the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland.
The Vatican confirmed that Martin, 51, has been appointed as Brady's "coadjutor archbishop" in Armagh, designating him as the likely next Catholic leader of all Ireland when Brady retires. Typically Catholic bishops are supposed to retire at age 75, but Irish church officials said Brady, who is due to reach retirement age next year, might stay in his job leading the island's 4 million Catholics through 2015.
Martin received congratulatory handshakes from well-wishers, among them Catholic schoolgirls and nuns — and emphasized his commitment to greater honesty about the church's sins.
"One of the greatest challenges facing our church is to acknowledge, live with, and learn from the past, including the terrible trauma caused by abuse," Martin said.
Martin today sits on the National Board for Safeguarding Children, a church-funded body that has power to investigate how dioceses and independent orders of priests and nuns concealed child sex abuse in the past, and to recommend reforms to ensure it can't happen again. That board over the past four years has uncovered myriad cover-ups and shoddy practices, including in Martin's own diocese centered on the Northern Ireland city of Londonderry.
That work builds on the efforts of state-authorized investigators who, over the past decade, have published several mammoth reports documenting how church authorities protected pedophiles in their ranks from prosecution from the 1930s to the mid-1990s.
"I think today of all those who have been abused by clergy, and the hurt and betrayal they have experienced. I am saddened that many good Catholics were let down so badly over the issue of abuse and that some have even stopped practicing their faith," Martin said, adding that the church must "ensure that young people are always protected, respected and nurtured."
Brady, by contrast, made no mention of the church's struggle to emerge from nearly two decades of scandal. A taxpayer-funded compensation program already has paid out more than €1 billion ($1.3 billion) to more than 13,000 claimants and their lawyers, and several hundred child-rape victims have successfully sued church authorities.
One such lawsuit in 2010 uncovered records showing that Brady, when serving as a canon lawyer to a border diocese in 1975, was involved in suppressing information on child rapes committed by the Rev. Brendan Smyth.
Brady admitted he had interviewed two boys who had been sexually assaulted by Smyth, sworn both to secrecy, and did not tell police or any civil authorities about the alleged crimes. Nor did he warn parents of other children identified by the boys as suffering abuse. Brady apologized publicly but simultaneously insisted he had acted appropriately because he was following superiors' orders.
Smyth eventually was exposed as Ireland's most dangerous child abuser in history, molesting or raping more than 100 boys and girls in several parts of Ireland, Britain and two U.S. states, Rhode Island and North Dakota, before Northern Ireland police finally brought charges against him in 1993. Smyth died in an Irish prison in 1997.
The scandals have steadily eroded state-church relations in Ireland, culminating in an unprecedented verbal assault on the Vatican by Ireland's newly elected Prime Minister Enda Kenny in 2011. Ireland followed up by shutting its Vatican embassy in what it billed as a cost-savings move.
Reflecting those sour relations, Brady had his very first meeting with Kenny as prime minister Friday with the newly promoted Martin at his side. For three hours they discussed the government's plans to legalize abortions in cases where the woman's life would be endangered from continued pregnancy, including in cases of threatened suicide. The church plans to organize conservative Catholics against the measure and is appealing to lawmakers in Kenny's party to rebel against their leader.
Veteran observers of Irish Catholicism said Martin was an inspired choice to show that the church wanted a new generation to repair its battered moral authority.
"He is not burdened. He does not carry any baggage from the past with him. He goes into it with clean hands, and I think that's very important at the present time," said Edward Daly, the retired bishop of Londonderry.
Martin McGuinness, deputy leader of the Northern Ireland government and a former Irish Republican Army commander in Londonderry, hailed Martin as "a progressive thinker and a man who has demonstrated an ability to connect with ordinary Catholics." He described Martin's promotion as "an opportunity for renewal."