DUBLIN — The Roman Catholic Church’s much-criticized leader in Ireland announced Friday that the Vatican has approved his successor, a reform-minded priest who has been outspoken on the need for more church accountability on child sex abuse.
Cardinal Sean Brady, who resisted calls to resign in 2010 despite being implicated in covering up abuse of children, named Monsignor Eamon Martin as his eventual successor at a press conference on the front steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh, the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland.
The Vatican confirmed that Martin, 51, has been appointed as Brady’s ‘‘coadjutor archbishop’’ in Armagh, as Brady’s day-to-day aide and the likely next Catholic leader of all Ireland when Brady retires.
Typically bishops are supposed to retire at age 75, but Irish church officials said Brady, who is due to reach retirement age next year, might stay in his job leading the country’s 4 million Catholics until 2015.
Martin received congratulatory handshakes from well-wishers, among them Catholic schoolgirls and nuns, inside the cathedral — and emphasized his commitment to greater honesty about the church’s sins.
‘‘One of the greatest challenges facing our church is to acknowledge, live with, and learn from the past, including the terrible trauma caused by abuse,’’ Martin said.
Martin sits on the National Board for Safeguarding Children, a church-funded body that can investigate how dioceses and independent orders of priests and nuns concealed child sex abuse in the past, and to recommend reforms. That board over the past four years has uncovered myriad coverups and shoddy practices, including in Martin’s own diocese centered on the Northern Ireland city of Londonderry.
That work builds on the efforts of state-authorized investigators who, over the past decade, have published several mammoth reports documenting how church authorities protected pedophiles in their ranks from prosecution from the 1930s to the mid-1990s.
‘‘I think today of all those who have been abused by clergy, and the hurt and betrayal they have experienced. I am saddened that many good Catholics were let down so badly over the issue of abuse and that some have even stopped practicing their faith,’’ Martin said, adding that the church must ‘‘ensure that young people are always protected, respected, and nurtured.’’
Brady, by contrast, made no mention of the church’s struggle to emerge from nearly two decades of scandal. A taxpayer-funded compensation program already has paid out more than $1.3 billion to more than 13,000 claimants and their lawyers, and several hundred child-rape victims have successfully sued church authorities.
One such lawsuit in 2010 uncovered records showing that Brady, when serving as a canon lawyer to a border diocese in 1975, was involved in suppressing information on child rapes committed by the Rev. Brendan Smyth.
Brady admitted he had interviewed two boys who had been sexually assaulted by Smyth, sworn both to secrecy, and did not tell police or any civil authorities about the alleged crimes.
Nor did he warn parents of other children identified by the boys as suffering abuse. Brady apologized publicly but insisted he had acted appropriately because he was too low-ranking in the church and was following superiors’ orders.
Smyth eventually was exposed as Ireland’s most dangerous child abuser in history, molesting or raping more than 100 boys and girls in several parts of Ireland, Britain, and two US states, Rhode Island and North Dakota, before Northern Ireland police finally brought charges against him in 1993. Smyth died in prison in 1997.
Veteran observers of Irish Catholicism said Martin was an inspired choice to show that the church wanted a new generation to repair its battered moral authority.
“He does not carry any baggage from the past with him. He goes into it with clean hands, and I think that’s very important at the present time,’’ said Edward Daly, the retired bishop of Londonderry.
Martin McGuinness, deputy leader of the Northern Ireland government and a former Irish Republican Army commander in Londonderry, hailed Martin as ‘‘a progressive thinker and a man who has demonstrated an ability to connect with ordinary Catholics.’’ He described Martin’s promotion as ‘‘an opportunity for renewal with the Irish Catholic Church so badly damaged by the handling of the criminal abuse of children.’’