A bishop was at the centre of intense controversy last night after it emerged he moved paedophile priests from one parish to another.
Dr John Kirby of the Diocese of Clonfert had explained his actions by stating he believed paedophilia to be a "friendship that had gone astray".
The church's child protection watchdog, the National Board for Safeguarding Children (NBSC), detailed a litany of child protection failures in its latest audits focusing on four dioceses, and, for the first time, three religious congregations.
It reserved some of its most scathing criticisms for two of the congregations, highlighting that information about serial abusers was not passed on to the gardai and that one order maintained a "culture of secrecy".
The dioceses audited were Clonfert, Limerick, Cork and Ross, and Kildare and Leighlin. The congregations were the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC); the Irish Province of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit (the Spiritans) and the Dominican Friars.
The Catholic Communications Office last night said there would be "no comment" from All-Ireland Primate Cardinal Sean Brady, stating it rested with those at the centre of the audits to comment.
Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald branded the revelations in the reports as horrific, worrying and unacceptable.
The audit revealed Bishop John Kirby had transferred two abusive priests from one parish to another in 1990 and 1994, although the abuse was reported to the civil authorities.
Dr Kirby apologised to survivors, but in an attempt to explain his actions he said: "I was unaware of the recidivist nature, or the compulsive nature of sexual abuse and I felt that it was a friendship that had gone astray, and was wrong.
"I now know how bad that was. It was a grave mistake."
But the head of the NBSC, Ian Elliott, called into question the competency of Dr Kirby.
"Care needs to be taken when appointing a bishop that you do not appoint a bishop with these attitudes," Mr Elliott said.
"These are basic competencies that everyone should have in authority. I'm not calling for anyone to resign but, for me, that's an absolute basic requirement."
Dr Kirby said he truly believed at the time that if he separated the abuser from their victim the problem would cease.
"You can put it down as gross innocence and naivety."
Dr Kirby revealed that at the time he never considered resigning but admitted he would step down if the incidents occurred now.
Key findings of the audits include:
• Allegations against 146 clerics relating to 378 complaints of abuse. Twelve convictions were secured.
• The congregations were responsible for 89 clerics who faced a total of 267 accusations, with six convictions secured.
• The Congregation of the Holy Spirit had serial abusers in its ranks yet failed to report any abuse until 1994.
• The Sacred Heart audit had to be suspended the day after it began when Mr Elliott found complaints had not been passed to gardai.
Mr Elliott said he was "shocked and disappointed" with some of the findings.
Ms Fitzgerald said the scale of the past abuse was "horrific", with the extent of the cover-up shocking.
"In the case of at least one order, we see that it continued up until as recently as last year to fail to report past admissions of abuse to gardai. In another order, one accused priest still had limited ministry up until last year, while another had a public profile, participating in an internet forum," she said.
"To think that such a culture and mindset continued to exist among sectors of our society until as recently as 12 months ago, is bitterly disappointing, it is deeply worrying and it is quite simply unacceptable."
The Cari Foundation, which supports children affected by abuse, described the practice of moving priests as appalling. Acting national clinical director Majella Ryan said: "Despite the investment of so much time and resources into improving child protection in the church, CARI questions how the reality still lags behind best practice."
Support group One in Four said: "We are also shocked and alarmed by revelations of appalling practice where the pain and suffering of victims could have been prevented."
Rights campaigner Andrew Madden said: "I have no confidence in Bishop Kirby's management of child protection in the Diocese of Clonfert."