DUBLIN (Reuters) - The archbishop of Dublin washed the feet of victims of clerical abuse on Sunday in one of the most visible acts of contrition for the systemic mistreatment of children that has shattered the Irish Catholic Church.
Addressing hundreds of people packed into Dublin's Pro-Cathedral, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin then made what victims said was the most explicit apology to date for the role of the Church hierarchy in enabling the abuse.
"For them to get down on their knees, it was humbling," said Darren McGavin, 39, who was abused as a child by a priest in his west Dublin parish. "I've found it hard to forgive, but today I found a small bit of closure."
A damning 2009 Irish government report on widespread child abuse by priests in the Dublin archdiocese between 1975 and 2004 said the Church in Ireland had "obsessively" concealed the abuse.
The report said one priest admitted abusing more than 100 children. Another said he had abused children every two weeks for more than 25 years.
"For covering up crimes of abuse, and by so doing actually causing the sexual abuse of more children... we ask God's forgiveness," Martin told the congregation.
"The archdiocese of Dublin will never be the same again. It will always bear this wound within it."
Martin and Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, who was sent to Ireland by the Vatican to study the response of the Dublin archdiocese to sexual abuse, lay prostrate in front of an empty stone altar at the start of the service.
They later invited five women and three male victims of abuse to the altar, where they knelt down and washed their feet, a traditional Catholic gesture of humility.
Three of the victims held hands and sobbed as Martin poured water on their feet and O'Malley dried them with a towel. Others stared into the distance, expressionless.
"Today was a day of liberation for me," said one of the eight, a 63-year-old, who declined to give his name. "I never thought I'd live to see this day when the church gave full recognition for the horror that was there."
Martin has apologized for abuse in the diocese before, but the Irish church has never as clearly acknowledged the fact that the actions of the Catholic hierarchy actually caused abuse, said abuse survivor Marie Collins.
"They were absolutely clear about the accountability of the leadership in the diocese and not just the abusers... That is something we have not heard clearly before," said Collins, who was abused by a priest as a 12-year-old in Dublin in 1960.
Other victims of abuse were less impressed.
"Today was a sham, hollow words," Michael O'Brien, 78, said after the liturgy, which he interrupted to tell the congregation how he was stripped naked, plunged into freezing water and whipped by a priest as a 5-year-old boy.
He said the church hierarchy continued to treat victims with disdain and were using token gestures as a public relations exercise.
"Why has the pope not apologized to the Irish people?" he said. "Washing the feet of people in this church will not give us peace."
Editing by Mark Trevelyan