A NATIONAL audit by gardai of clerical sex abuse is expected to reveal a huge volume of complaints against priests dating back 80 years when it is completed within months.
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The audit is being conducted by the gardai's sexual crime unit, in conjunction with the Health Service Executive, in the wake of the religious child abuse scandals revealed in the Ryan and Murphy reports.
Sources said the audit was at a "very advanced" stage and could be completed in two months. It will count all allegations of sexual abuse against priests "proven or otherwise" that were reported to gardai and health, church and other authorities since the foundation of the State.
Gardai began the massive trawl of the force's own records more than nine months ago and have worked closely with the HSE. They have unearthed complaints against priests and religious dating back to the 1930s and 1940s, according to the source.
The audit may also shed light on the response of the State authorities, which have been found wanting in numerous inquiries into clerical abuse.
The Murphy Report on clerical abuse in the Dublin Archdiocese blamed gardai for facilitating the cover-up of clerical sex abuse by failing to adequately investigate.
It found that some gardai considered clergy to be outside the remit of An Garda Siochana. One garda referred complaints against priests to the archdiocese, rather than investigating them.
The garda sexual crime unit is investigating whether members of the force, along with senior figures in the clergy, broke the law by shielding child abusers.
However, it is understood that detectives are struggling to find a relevant law that they may have broken, as most of the alleged offences pre-date the existing legislation.
The national audit of clerical abuse will attempt to establish, for the first time, the scale of child sexual abuse by priests throughout the country and over decades.
Given that several reports in recent years have revealed alarming volumes of abuse in individual diocese, the findings are likely to be shocking.
The Dublin Archdiocese revealed that child sex abuse allegations were made against 102 priests between January 1975 and 2004.
The Ryan Report on the treatment of children in religious residential institutions said there were more than 800 abusers in more than 200 Catholic institutions.
The more recent Cloyne Report examined allegations of abuse against 19 priests, 15 of which should have been reported to the authorities.
An investigation of clerical abuse in the Donegal diocese of Raphoe by the church's own independent watchdog, the National Body for Safeguarding Children, is expected to be published shortly.
The National Board for Safeguarding Children, the church's own child-protection body, is also conducting audits across each diocese.
There was fury last month when it revealed that some church authorities had withheld 292 complaints which should have been reported to the audit. In the year from April 2010 to March 2011, they reported only 53 complaints, whereas the actual number of complaints was 272.
Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald said that the audits could result in new inquiries into clerical abuse.