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A Catholic priest blesses a child during communion in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Sunday.PETER MUHLY

Rev. Donal Collins was known as "The Slinker" or "Paws." That's because he would prowl the dormitory at St. Peter's College in Wexford, Ireland, at night, looking for boys to indulge his perverted sexual desires.

The Diocese of Ferns received the first complaints of abuse against Father Collins in 1966. The bishop treated the case as a moral failure and sent the teacher-priest away, but he returned two years later and the abuse resumed. Some boys complained about demands for mutual masturbation and oral sex, but officials did nothing and Father Collins kept being promoted. The wave of complaints did not force his resignation until 1991. Two years later, he admitted to the abuses. He served one year in jail and was not defrocked until 2004 - 38 years after his sexual crimes began.

Father Collins was just one of many Irish priests who got away with abusing children for many years, even decades, as the Catholic church in Ireland protected its own or failed to understand the severity of the allegations. Eventually, three state investigations were launched, two of them last year, each a damning chronicle of sexual horror. The Vatican refused to co-operate in those probes. But this weekend, Pope Benedict XVI apologized for the trauma inflicted on the victims and their families.

The Pope's unprecedented apology for the Irish scandal will only erode the credibility and authority of the Catholic church rather than salvaging its reputation, critics said Sunday. They said the Pope had made a tactical and moral error by not addressing similar scandals that are erupting all over the globe or spelling out precise disciplinary action.

The Pope's long-awaited 4,700-word apology, read aloud in Irish churches Sunday, may have been simple and direct but was flawed because of its omissions, critics said.

"There is a difference between being sorry and accepting responsibility," Colm O'Gorman, co-founder of a sexual-abuse victims' group, One in Four, and author of Beyond Belief , the best-selling book about the clerical abuse he himself suffered, said in an interview. "Nowhere in the document is there an acceptance of responsibility. It's clear that the Pope and the Vatican are determined not to address this global crisis."

Addressing the Irish victims and their families directly, the papal message said: "You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated."

He was critical of the Irish church's handling of the scandal, which came to light in the early 1990s even though cases of child molestation had been occurring since the 1940s. Referring to the Irish bishops, the Pope said, "Some of you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously, to apply long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuses … it must be admitted that grave errors of judgment were made and failures of leadership occurred. All this has seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness."

The Pope did not specifically insist that cases of abuse be reported to the police; the victims want criminal law, not ecclesiastical (or canon) law, to be applied. Nor did he admit that much of the abuse was covered up or mention the cases that are rocking the Catholic church in other countries, including his native Germany.

"The Pope is the one person who could do more than anyone to protect children by ensuring that the police be notified of sexual abuse," Mr. O'Gorman said. "He has central command power [in the Church]and he has not done this."

Benedict's apology was not condemned by all abuse victims, partly because he announced that some dioceses will be investigated under so-called Apostolic Visitations, and because the Irish bishops did not get off lightly. Patrick Walsh, co-founder of Irish Survivors of Child Abuse, told the BBC that he found the Pope's letter "unprecedented" and "encouraging."

Still, the reaction among most victims and long-time observers of the current and previous popes was one of disappointment. John Cornwell, British author of Hitler's Pope , said the consequences of the abuse scandals in Ireland and many other countries "will be far-reaching and inevitable."

Both he and Mr. O'Gorman think the scandals will trigger a falloff in church membership and attendance. "People who have been thinking of becoming Catholic won't, and those that are may lose their faith," Mr. Cornwell said.

The scandals first erupted in North America. In the late 1980s, allegations of sexual abuse by members of the Christian Brothers, an Irish Catholic order that ran the Mount Cashel Orphanage in Newfoundland, hit the media; it involved some 300 former pupils. The scandals became a global phenomenon in the early part of the last decade when hundreds of priests were arrested in the United States. In 2002, Pope John Paul II accepted the resignation of the cardinal of Boston, Bernard Law, who was accused of covering up cases of abusive priests by moving them from parish to parish.

Cases of clerical abuse have recently surfaced in Brazil, Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany, where in the past few weeks more than 100 people have come forward with allegations. Last week, the German church suspended a priest who was allowed to work with children for decades even after a court convicted him for molesting boys. In 1980, then-Munich archbishop Joseph Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict in 2005, allowed the priest to obtain therapy rather than informing police.

The Pope has not said whether he would accept the resignation offers of at least three Irish bishops. "Accepting the resignations is a different issue," Vatican spokesman Rev. Frederico Lombardi said. "He will decide on this separately."