Academics and victims say that the Church itself as well as police, teachers and even victims' families all helped maintain the veil of secrecy.
This was because of the huge authority wielded by the Church in Ireland which meant that some parents actually blamed children for bringing abuse on themselves.
Until the early 1990s, “it was simply impossible to challenge the Church”, said Kevin Lalor, head of the School of Social Sciences and Law at the Dublin Institute of Technology.
To understand the Catholic Church's central role in society, you have to recognise its role as an “anti-British force” prior to Irish independence in 1921, Lalor said.
“As the centre of identity, it had an overly inflated status. More so than in any other country, the Church was an official arm of the state,” he added.
The majority of schools and hospitals were managed by the Catholic Church, and it even influenced the composition of governments.
“The Church was extremely dominant. People were living through the Church,” said Dr Helen Buckley, senior lecturer in child protection at Trinity College Dublin.
It set the moral code and victims of abuse committed by priests or nuns who dared to speak up faced formidable obstacles.
“The priest was the ultimate symbol of morality and chastity and was highly respected. The victim might not have been believed by the community, friends and even relatives,” said Sue Donnelly, a sociologist at University College Dublin.
A significant breakthrough came in 1990, when a local newspaper dared to print accusations of abuse against a priest in Ferns diocese in the southeast of the country.
“People reacted in complete disbelief. They gathered in front of the offices of the newspaper, burned some issues and boycotted the businesses that advertised in it,” Donnelly recalled.
But the story sparked a huge investigation which eventually led to the government-backed Ferns report of 2005.
It detailed serious abuse and the failure of senior churchmen to identify and remove paedophile priests.
A fundamental lack of understanding about sexual abuse also helped to keep the lid on what was happening in orphanages and state-run reform schools.
“There was a lack of awareness about sexual abuse. Up to 15 or 20 years ago, people thought it was committed by very strange people, living in remote areas, who had mental difficulties or drinking problems,” Buckley says.
Ignorance of sexual abuse and the belief that the Church could do no wrong meant some parents would even say “you must have deserved it if a child would come and say he was punished by his teacher,” according to Lalor.
The police were reluctant to rock the boat. “They felt a quiet word to the bishop was the best option, that it was a moral issue, not a legal one,” Lalor added.
Reports into institutional abuse have repeatedly found that priests found to be abusing children were quietly moved to another parish, where they often started abusing again.
Donnelly stressed that victims also faced the difficulty of talking about sexuality in the extremely conservative Ireland of the 1960s and 1970s, and those who “told tales” faced being accused of not being “a good Catholic”.
Paddy Doyle, one of the first victims to lift the lid on the scandal with his 1990 book “The God Squad”, says that small children also lived in fear of being “punished even stronger” if they tried to denounce their abusers.
“For saying anything at all, you would be seriously punished, beaten, you could be deprived of food, of any kind of social interaction with other children,” he recalls of his childhood in a Catholic-run institution where he was sent as an orphan aged four in 1955.
Then, in the 1990s, people gradually started to talk about their experiences, encouraged by various counselling services set up around that time.
Lalor said that “all of a sudden, we went from a total absence of the subject” to the start of the chain of events that led to the resignations of a succession of Irish bishops for failing to stamp out abuse.
The latest to stand down, on Thursday, was James Moriarty, bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, who recognised that the “long struggle of survivors” had revealed an “un-Christian” culture within the Church.SIC: DMG