IRELAND'S four senior Catholic churchmen have been summoned to Rome next week to prepare for a special Vatican investigation into the state of the scandal-ridden Irish church.
The unprecedented probe was ordered by Pope Benedict last March in response to the shocking Murphy Report into top level cover-ups of paedophile clerics.
Last night, Martin Long, the head of the Bishops' Communications Office, confirmed to the Irish Independent that the invitation was issued by the Vatican's Congregation of Bishops.
Church sources said they are not expected to meet Pope Benedict, who regards the Irish church's paedophile scandals as a major challenge to his pontificate.
Since last February's special summit in Rome when Pope Benedict discussed the crisis with Irish church leaders, the Pope's pontificate has been confronted with similar large-scale abuse of children by clergy in countries such as Belgium, Switzerland and his native Germany.
Earlier this month he met victims of abuse during his visit to Britain and reaffirmed his determination to root out paedophile abuse scandals, which have threatened the credibility of the Catholic Church and his own papacy.
While in Rome, the Irish churchmen will come face to face with a team of investigators appointed by Pope Benedict to examine the four Irish archdioceses and "some other as yet unspecified dioceses".
These will include Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the retired Archbishop of Westminster, who will inspect Cardinal Brady's archdiocese of Armagh, and Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston who is to inspect Dublin. Toronto's Archbishop Christopher Collins will investigate Cashel, while Ottawa's Archbishop Terence Prendergast will look at the west of Ireland archdiocese of Tuam.
An investigation of the state of Irish seminaries will be conducted by Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York.
The Rome meeting will plan the terms of reference of the visitation by the cardinals and archbishops who will be accompanied by a number of priests and religious sisters who are also to probe religious orders.
The investigators, known as apostolic visitors, will report their findings directly to Pope Benedict.
A senior Vatican official has defended the visitation on the grounds that the Holy See "wants to ask its own questions, in its own time" about the conclusions already contained in the two Irish state inquiries.
A statement issued last night by the Catholic Communications Office in Maynooth said the purpose of the visitation will be to offer assistance and contribute to the spiritual and moral renewal of the church in Ireland. "It will facilitate reflection, evaluation and renewal of church life," it added.