The report of the Ferns Inquiry says that it identified more than 100 allegations of child sexual abuse, made between 1962 and 2002, against 21 priests.

Six of the priests had died before any allegations of abuse were made against them.

The report concludes that 'both Bishop Herlihy and Bishop Comiskey placed the interests of individual priests ahead of those of the community in which they served'.

It says the nature of the response by the Church authorities in the Diocese of Ferns to allegations of child sexual abuse by priests operating under the ageis of that diocese has varied over the past 40 years.

The report says the variations reflect in part the growing understanding by doctors and society generally of the nature and the consequences of child sexual abuse and in part the different personalities and management styles of successive bishops.

Bishop Donal Herlihy

The report says that between 1960 and 1980, it would appear that Bishop Donal Herlihy treated child sexual abuse by priests of his diocese exclusively as a moral problem.

He penalised the priest against whom the allegation was made by transferring him to a different post or different diocese for a time, but then returned him to his former position.

It says that by 1980, Bishop Herlihy recognised that there was a psychological or medical dimension to the issue of child sexual abuse.

His decision in 1980 to send priests in respect of whom allegations of abuse were made to a psychologist was 'appropriate'.

But 'what was wholly inappropriate and totally inexplicable' was the decision to appoint to curacies priests against whom allegations had been made and in respect of whom a respected clerical psychologist had expressed his concerns in unambiguous terms as to their suitability to interact with young people.

The report criticises Bishop Herlihy's decision to ordain 'clearly unsuitable men' into the priesthood when he knew or ought to have known that they had a propensity to abuse children.

It says that where a credible allegation of child sexual abuse is made against an employee, it is the responsibility of the employer or superior to require the employee to step aside promptly from any post or position in which he has access to children.

Bishop Brendan Comiskey

In the case of Bishop Brendan Comiskey, the report says that 'in almost every case significant periods elapsed' before the Bishop could persuade the priest in question to vacate his position and undergo assessment and treatment.

The report says that in no case did Bishop Comiskey persuade or compel the priest concerned to stand aside from his priestly ministry.

Bishop Eamonn Walsh

In relation to Bishop Eamonn Walsh, who took over as administrator of the diocese in 2002, the report says the current practice of the diocese operates to a very high level of child protection but 'the regret is that this was not achieved earlier'.

In April 2002, eleven priests against whom allegations of sexual abuse had been made were still alive.

Three have been excluded from the priesthood by the Holy See. Seven have stood aside from active ministry at the request of Bishop Walsh. The eighth priest is in retirement.

The gardaí are advised from time to time where these priests are and are satisfied that arrangements put in place provide appropriate child protection.

The report says it has no evidence to suggest that there was a paedophile ring in operation in the Diocese of Ferns, or within any clerical institution.

Garda criticised

Garda handling of complaints of abuse have been strongly criticised in the Ferns Report.

It says formal complaints of sexual abuse were made against eight priests to the gardaí but the garda authorities' handling of one of these complaints was 'wholly inadequate'. The handling of the other cases was satisfactory.

Evidence given to the inquiry of some complaints made to gardaí before 1988 do not appear to have been recorded in any garda file and were not investigated in an appropriate manner.

The report says that this unsatisfactory approach may have been due to the reluctance of the complainant to pursue their complaint or reluctance on the part of members of the gardaí to investigate allegations against members of the Catholic clergy.

The report says that evidence before 1998 is insufficient to enable the inquiry to reach any firm view.

Health authorities

The report highlights the lack of statutory powers enabiling the health authorities at the time to fully protect children from abuse.

It says all health boards have a wide range of powers to promote the welfare of children in their area but few, if any, statutory powers to achieve that where the welfare of a child is endangered by abuse from a person outside the family circle.

In the absence of these powers, there was 'no significant response' available to the South Eastern Health Board to the allegations of abuse that they were aware of.

The report also expresses concern that the health board and other authorities were unaware of the very limited powers available to them to intervene to protect the children

Failures at St Peter's College

The Ferns Inquiry also highlighted major failures in St Peter's College where all the priests investigated by the inquiry were ordained.

Over a random five-year period selected by the inquiry, ten priests who were in St Peter's have come to the attention of the inquiry over allegations of child sexual abuse.

Fr Donal Collins who was a teacher and then a principal, consistently abused boys over a 21-period, it says.

A member of a religious order, who spoke to the inquiry, recalled a high level of sexual activity in the college but did not recall child sexual abuse as being a problem.

The 271-page report by Justice Frank Murphy was presented to the Cabinet this morning.

The report will not be published on the Internet because of legal advice.