The Roman Catholic church in Ireland has lost its credibility because of its mishandling of abuse by priests, the leader of the Anglican church said in remarks released on Saturday. A leading Catholic archbishop said he was “stunned” by the comments.

It was the first time Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual leader of the Church of England, has spoken publicly on the crisis engulfing the Catholic church. The remarks come ahead of a planned visit to England and Scotland by Pope Benedict XVI later this year.

“I was speaking to an Irish friend recently who was saying that it’s quite difficult in some parts of Ireland to go down the street wearing a clerical collar now,” Archbishop Williams told the BBC. “And an institution so deeply bound into the life of a society, suddenly becoming, suddenly losing all credibility - that’s not just a problem for the church, it is a problem for everybody in Ireland, I think.”

The interview with Archbishop Williams, recorded on March 26, is to be aired on Monday on the BBC’s “Start the Week” programme. His remarks were part of a general discussion of religion to mark Easter.

The Catholic church has been on the defensive over accusations leaders protected child abusers for decades in many countries.

Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said he had “rarely felt personally so discouraged” as when he heard Archbishop Williams’ opinions.

“I have been more than forthright in addressing the failures of the Catholic Church in Ireland. I still shudder when I think of the harm that was caused to abused children. I recognize that their Church failed them,” a statement, posted on the archdiocese’s Web site, said. “Those working for renewal in the Catholic Church in Ireland did not need this comment on this Easter weekend and do not deserve it.”

Relations between the two churches were strained last year after the Vatican invited conservative Anglicans to join the Catholic Church. How many will take up the offer is still unknown.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a big deal for the Church of England, I must say,” Archbishop Williams said. “I think there’ll be a few people who will take advantage of it - and they’ll take advantage of it because they believe they ought to be in communion with the Bishop of Rome. And I can only say fine, God bless them.”

Archbishop Williams said he would meet with the pope at Lambeth Palace, that he would be welcomed as “as a valued partner, and that’s about it.”

In the interview, Archbishop Williams said Christian institutions, faced with the choice of self-protection or revealing potentially damaging secrets, have decided to keep quiet to preserve their credibility.

“We’ve learned that that is damaging, it’s wrong, it’s dishonest and it requires that very hard recognition ... which ought to be natural for the Christian church based as it is on repentance and honesty.” he said.

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