LONDON — With the Catholic Church facing a sexual abuse scandal that has spread across Europe, Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday issued a rare apology to victims and their family members in Ireland but outlined no disciplinary action or changes in Vatican policies to prevent future incidents.
The apology, in the form of a pastoral letter, came as the church is embroiled in potentially its biggest crisis since Benedict became pope in 2005. Hundreds of abuse cases involving Catholic clergy have emerged in recent weeks in the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland and Benedict's native Germany.
The pope's letter was aimed at the church in Ireland, where a government report last year detailed thousands of instances of physical and sexual abuse from 1930 to 1990. But it amounted to the highest-level Vatican response yet to the mounting allegations of abuses in Europe, which have raised questions about Benedict's role in the handling of at least one case when he was archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982.
Some Vatican watchers and victims' groups said the apology fell short and would not curb the crisis. In his letter, the pope said that he would dispatch a special delegation to Irish dioceses to more fully review their handling of cases and that "no effort should be spared in improving and updating existing procedures."
But he did not lay out new prescriptions, suggest punishment or touch on the wider scandal that has led European government officials to denounce church secrecy surrounding abuse cases.