VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict told Irish bishops at crisis talks over a pedophilia scandal that sexual abuse of children by priests is a "heinous crime" that they must address with resolve, the Vatican said on Tuesday.
In a statement issued at the end of two days of meetings, the Vatican also said the Irish bishops had promised the pope they are committed to cooperating with civil authorities in investigations of the scandal.
"The Holy Father observed that the sexual abuse of children and young people is not only a heinous crime, but also a grave sin which offends God and wounds the dignity of the human person created in his image," a statement said.
Benedict, the 24 Irish bishops and top Vatican officials met in response to outrage in Ireland over the Murphy Commission Report, a damning indictment of child sex abuse by priests.
The report, published in November, said the Church in Ireland had "obsessively" concealed child abuse in the Dublin archdiocese from 1975 to 2004, and operated a policy of "don't ask, don't tell."
The meetings, the first of their kind at the Vatican in eight years, discussed a plan of action and could lead to more prelates resigning in a shakeup of the Irish church hierarchy. Four have already quit.
"While realizing that the current painful situation will not be resolved quickly, (the pope) challenged the Bishops to address the problems of the past with determination and resolve, and to face the present crisis with honesty and courage," the statement said.
The bishops also "emphasized their commitment to cooperation with the statutory authorities in Ireland -- North and South" as well as with other organizations looking into the abuse of children, it said.
The Murphy report said all Dublin bishops in charge during the period under study had been aware of some complaints, but the archdiocese had been more preoccupied with protecting the reputation of the church than safeguarding children.
Four bishops have offered their resignations and the pope has so far accepted one. Victims' group One in Four called on other bishops throughout Ireland who had engaged in a "culture of cover-up" to step down.
The pope will send a letter to the Irish people, the first ever papal document devoted exclusively to pedophilia, sometime during Lent, which begins on Wednesday and ends on Easter, April 4, a spokesman said.
The meetings "examined the failure of Irish Church authorities for many years to act effectively in dealing with cases involving the sexual abuse of young people," the statement said.
It added that all who took part in the meetings, from the pope on down, "recognized that this grave crisis has led to a breakdown in trust in the Church's leadership and has damaged her witness to the Gospel and its moral teaching."
The statement acknowledged that "there is no doubt that errors of judgment and omissions stand at the heart of the crisis" and that crisis had severely divided the Church in predominantly Catholic Ireland.
During the meetings, the bishops handed the pope a letter from another victims' group, the Irish Survivors of Child Abuse, which asked him to investigate how Christ's teaching had been "so flagrantly abrogated over many decades."
It urged him to help bring perpetrators of abuse or its cover-up to civil justice and to set up a commission "to examine all aspects of the historical misconduct" of Irish religious orders and priests who betrayed their sacred vows.
Victims' groups said they would seek monetary compensation, which could lead to a financial crisis for the Irish Church.
The Murphy report said the Church's prominent role in Irish life was one of the reasons abuses were allowed to go unchecked, the report said.
One priest admitted abusing more than 100 children. Another said he had abused children every two weeks for over 25 years.
Writing by Philip Pullella; additional reporting by Andras Gergely in Dublin; editing by Robin Pomeroy