A newly revealed letter (photo, from bbcimg.co.uk) shows that in 1997, a Vatican department advised Ireland’s Catholic bishops not to report priests suspected of child abuse to the police, but to handle them within church.
Uncovered by Irish broadcaster RTE and revealed on Wednesday, the letter documents the church’s emphasis on handling all child-abuse allegations and the determination of punishments within the church instead of delegating that responsibility over to civil authorities.
The late Archbishop Luciano Storero, Pope John Paul II’s diplomat to Ireland, signed the letter. A year before the Vatican rejected an Irish church initiative to assist police in identifying alleged pedophile priests with Ireland’s first wave of publicly disclosed lawsuits.
In the letter, Storero wrote that any bishops who tried to impose punishments outside the confines of canon law would face the “highly embarrassing” position of having their actions overturned on appeal in Rome.
On Wednesday, the Vatican issued a statement in which Reverend Federico Lombardi said: “This circumstance brings about serious problems of a moral and canonical nature that require extreme prudence with the question of mandatory reporting.”
According to child-abuse activists in Ireland, the disclosed document shows that Vatican leaders did not only sanction protection of pedophile priests from criminal investigation, they ordered it.
The letter was described as “the smoking gun we’ve been looking for”, by Joelle Casteix, a director of the US advocacy group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
She said the letter was certain to be cited by victims’ lawyers seeking to pin responsibility directly on the Vatican rather than local dioceses.
“We now have evidence that the Vatican deliberately intervened to order bishops not to turn pedophile priests over to law enforcement,” Casteix said.
She added that for civil lawsuits, this letter shows what victims have been saying for dozens and dozens of years: “What happened to them involved a concerted cover-up that went all the way to the top”.
Failing to follow canon law
But according to Jeffrey Lena, the Vatican’s US lawyer, the letter does no such thing.
“The letter nowhere instructed Irish bishops to disregard civil law reporting requirements,” he said in a statement.
The Vatican still has not endorsed any of the Irish church’s three major policy documents since 1996 regarding safeguarding children from clerical abuse.
Most of the $2 billion paid to more than 14,000 abuse claimants dating back to the 1940s came from Irish taxpayers rather than from the church.
In 2010 Pope Benedict XVI sent a pastoral letter to Ireland’s Catholics, in which he faulted bishops for failing to follow canon law and offered no explicit endorsement of Irish child-protection efforts by the Irish church or state.
However, in his letter fourteen years ago, Storero told bishops that a senior church panel in Rome, the Congregation for the Clergy, had decided that the Irish church’s policy of “mandatory” reporting of abuse claims conflicted with canon law.
Storero also warned that bishops who followed the Irish child-protection policy and reported a priest’s suspected crimes to police risked having their in-house punishments of the priest overturned by the Congregation for the Clergy. The Congregation oversees matters regarding priests and deacons not belonging to religious orders.
Colm O’Gorman, the Ireland director of Amnesty International, said: “The letter is of huge international significance, because it shows that the Vatican’s intention is to prevent reporting of abuse to criminal authorities. And if that instruction applied here, it applied everywhere.”
In the 1980s, O’Gorman was raped repeatedly by an Irish priest when he was an altar boy. He was among the first victims to speak out in the mid-1990s.
According to him evidence is growing that some Irish bishops continued to follow the 1997 Vatican instructions and withheld reports of crimes against children as recently as 2008.
The Vatican’s child-protection policies remain in legal limbo today.
Although on its website the Vatican advises bishops worldwide to report crimes to police in a legally nonbinding guide, this recourse was omitted from the official legal advice provided by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and updated last summer.