updated 5/22/2009 3:41:34 PM ET 2009-05-22T19:41:34

Ireland's Roman Catholic religious orders resisted growing demands Friday for them to pay more for the abuse of thousands of children behind the closed doors of state-funded schools.

The Irish government expects to dole out more than $1.6 billion in legal costs and compensation to 14,000 people molested, beaten or terrorized while under church care from the 1930s to 1990s — a long-buried scandal brought into full light this week with the publication of a 2,600-page report.

Anger at church leaders is swelling, particularly over their refusal to contribute a bigger share of money to the compensation pot for victims.

Under terms of a secretive, bitterly disputed 2002 deal negotiated at a time when religious orders still denied allegations of widespread abuse, the government agreed to cap the church's total liability at less than $175 million — potentially one-tenth of the final cost.

Pat Rabbitte, a lawmaker from the opposition Labour Party, which has long criticized the 2002 deal, said it was perverse that taxpayers — including abuse victims — had to fund a program that actually shields church figures from lawsuits. Any victim who accepts the payments, which average $90,000, must sign away rights to sue either the church or state.

"This terrible, grubby deal protected the monsters, the brutes, responsible for this cruelty to children. It protected them from being confronted in court by their victims," said Rabbitte, who called the church's $175 million limit "a very small price for the religious congregations to pay to escape justice."

Religious groups won't revisit terms
But the umbrella body representing the 18 religious orders implicated in the scandal, the Conference of Religious in Ireland, said Friday its members have no intention of renegotiating the deal.

"As far as we are aware, none of the congregations concerned plan to revisit the terms of the agreement made in good faith," the conference said in a statement.

"Some have questioned whether the religious (nuns and brothers) have honored their commitment to the agreement. We can confirm that the vast majority of these transactions have been completed," it said. "However, some legal work remains outstanding on some of the property transfers."

Doubts swirl as to how much the church orders actually have paid.

Prime Minister Brian Cowen said the government could not force the church to pay more.

Cowen said the government decided in 2002 that if victims sued both the religious orders and the government, taxpayers would ultimately be liable anyway because the state funded and had legal responsibility over the church-run industrial schools. He said the orders — which still own many of Ireland's hospitals and schools — could have pleaded an inability to pay.

"I emphasize that the need for the state to face up to its responsibilities was there in any event," Cowen said.

Can deal be invalidated?
But opposition politicians argued that the state should seek to invalidate the agreement by arguing that the religious orders had not honestly disclosed the extent of abuse that was ultimately uncovered in this week's report.

Rabbitte said the government also was negligent in failing to audit the religious orders' actual wealth.

"Nobody wants to bankrupt them," he said. "But we truly don't have any idea of what cost they could afford to bear in paying for this dreadful chapter in our history."

In 2002, the government estimated total liabilities at a maximum of $700 million. Within the year, the government's own auditor general said that was hopelessly optimistic and the real cost would likely exceed $1.6 billion. At the time, then-Prime Minister Bertie Ahern rejected that assessment, insisting the payout would be "far smaller."

But $1.5 billion already has been paid out to 12,000 claimants, and 2,000 more remain to be processed. Estimates of the final bill now range up to nearly $2 billion.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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