(CBS News) An Irishman named Diarmuid Martin says the Catholic Church in Ireland has reached a breaking point, a crisis that he says results from the sexual abuse of children by priests and the cover-up by the Church. Martin has provided tens of thousands of pages of evidence against specific priests, and his words and actions carry extraordinary weight. That's because Diarmuid Martin is the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin. Bob Simon reports.
The following script is from "The Archbishop of Dublin" which aired on March 4, 2012. Bob Simon is the correspondent. Tom Anderson, producer.
The head of the Catholic Church may be in Rome, but its heart has always been in Ireland. From the early fifth century, when Saint Patrick was named a bishop and started converting the Irish, Catholicism has been more than a religion. It's been a culture and a way of life.
But in recent years - the faith of the Irish has been sorely tested, not their faith in God necessarily, but their faith in the Church, after several damning investigations provided appalling detail on the sexual abuse of children by priests.
For decades, the outrage was covered up and the priests were largely protected. An Irishman named Diarmuid Martin would not disagree with any of this. He has dared to publicly criticize the Church, and his words carry a lot of clout because Diarmuid Martin is the archbishop of Dublin.
Bob Simon: You have said that the Church in Ireland has reached its breaking point.
Archbishop Martin: It has. It has reached a breaking point. It's at a very difficult stage.
Simon: To what extent, archbishop, do you think this crisis in the church is due to the sexual scandals?
Martin: Oh, enormously.
There's overwhelming evidence that the Church hierarchy was not only aware of the sexual abuse, but did little about it. The Dublin Archdiocese knew who the predator priests were, even wrote reports about them but then locked up the files. Investigators on a state panel, the Murphy Commission, asked for the files, but the Church refused until Diarmuid Martin became archbishop.
Martin: I provided the Murphy Commission investigation into Dublin Diocese over 65,000 documents. And the material was there. It was in my archives.
The documents revealed that one priest admitted abusing over a hundred children. Another said he abused children twice a month for 25 years. Archbishop Martin believes thousands of children suffered similar fates.
Martin: Abuse isn't-- it isn't-- it isn't just the, you know, the actual sexual acts, which are horrendous, but sexual abuse of a child is-- it's a total abuse of power. It's actually saying to a child, "I control you." And that is saying to the child, "You're worthless."
To find out how small parishes have been affected by the scandal, we went to the village of Allihies on the Beara Peninsula on the southwestern coast. It doesn't get more Irish than this. No one we talked to was aware of any abuse here, but even so the parish is required to follow strict new church regulations designed to protect children. Hard to believe but priests are now never even allowed to be alone with a child. An adult supervisor has to be there at all times. Monica Polly is on the church council.
Monica Polly: They never take the children out on their own, they never speak with the children on their own, there's always somebody with them.
Under the new regulations, drawn up by Ireland's bishops, any allegation of abuse has to be reported to civil authorities. And any priest accused of abuse has to step down while the charge is being investigated.
Polly: To be honest, I don't think we've seen it all yet.
Polly: I honestly--
Simon: You think there's more to come?
Polly: I do.
Monica Polly still believes in God, she says. She goes to church every week. So does Paddy Sheehan. But he has concerns about his church. Paddy has lived here all his life. He runs a cable car that takes farmers and birdwatchers to an island just across the channel.
Simon: Were you surprised?
Paddy Sheehan: We were surprised. To me, we were surprised that there was so much cover-up. You know? So much hidden. So much children, so many abused. You know what I mean? To me and I would say maybe to the parish there was too much cover-up and that was a pity.
Simon: Why was there this cover-up?
Polly: They cover it up because the priests were supposed to be perfect. They had an image of what they should be and they kept to that image rather than the reality.
[Martin: How do we pass that sense of strong faith to the coming generations?]
Patsy McGarry: Archbishop Martin is probably the only senior figure in the Catholic church of Ireland, who has retained or achieved the necessary credibility where this issue is concerned.
Patsy McGarry is the religious affairs correspondent for the Irish Times. He says other high-ranking figures in the church have been directly tied to the cover-up.
[Cardinal Sean Brady: We must admit that grave errors of judgment were made.]
Including Archbishop Martin's superior, Cardinal Sean Brady. When he was a young priest, Brady interviewed two teenagers who'd been abused by a priest. Twenty years later, when one of them sued the Church, it was revealed that Brady had ordered him to remain silent.
McGarry: He met those young people, he believed those young people, he swore them to secrecy as part of the canon law investigation process. He never informed the police, he never informed the health authorities. He informed nobody in civil society.
Just last November, the church agreed to a secret financial settlement in Dublin High Court. Cardinal Brady has apologized for his actions and said he was ashamed he did not uphold the values he believes in. The priest he helped protect went on to abuse 20 more children.
This is how bad it's gotten. Just last summer the Vatican recalled its ambassador to Ireland. The first time that's happened in 1,600 years of Roman Catholicism in Ireland. That followed the government's charging that the Church in an Irish diocese had ignored complaints against 19 priests as recently as 2009. And Ireland's prime minister accused the Vatican of placing its own interests over and above the protection of children.
Enda Kenny: The revelations of the Cloyne Report have brought the government, Irish Catholics and the Vatican to an unprecedented juncture.
An Irish prime minister had never before spoken out against the Vatican in public. And Enda Kenny did it in parliament.
Kenny: For the first time in this country a report into child sexual abuse exposes an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign Democratic republic as little as three years ago, not three decades ago.
The Vatican, says Patsy McGarry, also overruled Archbishop Martin's suggestion that two bishops associated with the scandal step down.
McGarry: They sent their letters of resignation to Rome and Rome would not accept them.
Simon: Rome would not accept them?
Simon: Can we say the pope?
McGarry: Of course.
Archbishop Martin was reluctant to hold the pope responsible.
Martin: I don't think that's really-- exactly the dynamic of what happened, yeah.
Simon: I see. And examining the exact dynamic is something which you would prefer not to do right here, right now?
Martin: Certainly not.
[Father Shane Crombie: Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.]
Some younger priests believe that the only way forward is repentance. That's why Father Shane Crombie keeps a burned crucifix on the altar. It's all that survived when the original church here burned down 25 years ago. Father Crombie says it's a testament that if his church can survive one fire, it can survive another.
Crombie: I think the fire that's burning in the church at the moment is not a bit-- is not a fire of wood and of furniture, but it's a fire-- the fire obviously of scandal, the fire of disappointment, the fire of absolute rejection, the fire of cover-up. All that is the fire that is burning at the moment.
Simon: And you can rebuild a church that burns down--
Crombie: It is the people, it was the people that rallied together to rebuild this church. It will be the people who will rebuild the church that is on fire.
The Irish Church was already in decline before the scandal. But the exodus from the pews has greatly accelerated. Attendance at Sunday Mass is down from 90 percent in the early 70s to just 2 percent in some parishes today. Ireland is also running out of priests.
No ritual in the Church is more awe inspiring than this: the ordination of a priest. The Church used to ordain so many priests that they were one of Ireland's main exports. But last year there was not a single ordination in Dublin and only one is planned this year.
Martin: When I entered this building, where we're meeting today, which was then a seminary-- there were 120 of us, and they were building a new extension. At the moment, I have 10 seminarians.
Simon: How do you--
Martin: Very good seminarians.
Simon: Fine, but 10?
The priest shortage is affecting many parishes like the small one in Allihies. For the first time in the history of its diocese, the parish doesn't have its own priest. A different one commutes to town every week.
Simon: That's not the way it's supposed to be like, is it?
Monica Polly: No, and not what I was used to all my life.
It has changed the very fabric of life in Allihies. As in most Irish villages, the priest had always been the man to go to, far more than the mayor or the police chief.
Paddy Sheehan: You know, it was a big shock to everybody. You know, trying to get used to it. You know what I mean? More so to the old people 'cause-- they're so used to the priest meeting them.
Bob Simon: Sure.
Paddy Sheehan: Calling to the house and talking to them and everything, you know.
Archbishop Martin knows his church is in trouble. He also knows the solution, if there is one, is not silence.
Simon: You are the one who challenged not only the church in Ireland, but the Vatican.
Martin: I would, you know, never sat down to challenge anybody. I set out, sat down you know, to say aloud what was going in my mind, in my heart.
If Diarmuid Martin was more outspoken than other Irish clergy, it may be because he was an outsider. Although he was born and ordained in Ireland, he spent most of his career outside the country as a roving ambassador for the Vatican before he returned to Dublin as archbishop.
Simon: When an abused child comes to you, archbishop, what do you say to him or to her?
Martin: I usually meet them when they're many, many years later. That's when they come forward. What I try to do is imagine what they looked like when they were a child.
One man told him he had been assaulted when he was only 8 years old.
Martin: Basically he had been raped, you know, and he'd been raped in a sort of chapel, which makes it even more, more, heinous.
Simon: Can you reveal what you said to him?
Martin: I don't say much. I listen.
The archbishop was so traumatized by this man's story that when he visited a school the next day, he asked to see children the same age as that child raped in that chapel.
Martin: And the teacher said, "Where would you like-- would you like to see some of the classes?" And I said that, "Okay, I'd begin-- I'd like to see 8-year-olds." And he must have thought I was crazy. But if you went in on the day of the opening of a new school, where you know, when the archbishop and the minister are coming, and the 8-year-olds are all dressed up and with their hair combed and so on. It's devastating.
Simon: You couldn't imagine it?
Martin: It's just, you know, what do you say? You know, you just see-- you see the-- you know, you see that-- you know, to-- it was just somebody like that that was-- I mean, a grown man is one thing. But when you actually see a child, you need to do that.
[Martin: This is the gospel of the Lord.]
Last year, Archbishop Martin did something the Church in Ireland had never done. He held a service of atonement for abuse victims - prostrated himself on the altar - and in an act of humility, washed their feet.
[Martin: There's still a long path to journey in honesty before we can truly merit forgiveness.]
Martin: There's a real danger today of people saying-- "The child abuse scandal is over. Let's bury it. Let's move on." It isn't over. Child protection and the protection of children is something will go on-- for-- for-- you know, for the rest of our lives and into the future. Because the problems are there.