A newly released 1997 letter that some claim proves a Vatican-led cover up of clergy sex abuse in Ireland is being misrepresented, Vatican and Irish Church officials said.
The letter’s release Jan. 17 by Ireland’s RTE television seemed timed to embarrass the Vatican as a team Pope Benedict appointed began its official “apostolic visitation” to assess the state of the Irish Church and its progress in the wake of the clergy abuse scandal.
But Church officials said the letter proves the opposite of what lawyers for abuse victims have been claiming widely in the media.
The Jan. 31, 1997 letter was written to the Irish bishops by the Vatican's then-representative to Ireland, the late Archbishop Luciano Storero. In it, he expressed the Vatican’s concerns that legal requirements that bishops report priests accused of abuse to police might cause conflicts with Church law.
Contrary to news reports, the Vatican’s concern was not to shield priests from punishment. Rather the Vatican wanted to ensure that Irish Church officials followed Church law in reporting accused priests — in order to avoid having their decisions overturned on technicalities by Vatican officials.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, noted that despite allegations being made in the media, Archbishop Storeo never suggested that the bishops not cooperate with Irish authorities.
"The letter rightly emphasises the importance of always respecting canonical legislation, precisely in order to ensure that guilty parties do not have justified grounds for an appeal and thus producing a result contrary to the one desired," he said.
Archbishop Storero’s two-page letter was written in the highly technical language of Church law. He expressed concern that some requirements of the Irish policy “appeared contrary to canonical discipline.”
The archbishop did not spell out the possible contradictions with Church law, although his letter suggested that the Vatican was concerned about protecting accused priests' reputations and their rights to a fair trial.
One consequence of any breach with canon law would have been that accused priests might have grounds to appeal their case to the Vatican, and the Vatican might be forced to “invalidate the actions of the same bishops who are attempting to put a stop to these problems," he wrote.
“The results,” if that would be the case, “could be highly embarrassing and detrimental to those same diocesan authorities," according to Archbishop Storero.
Vatican and Irish Church officials stated that any fair reading of the letter indicates that the Church took seriously the abuse allegations and the attempt to prosecute them. Indeed, they said, the purpose of the letter was to ensure that the priest’s rights to a fair trial were respected and that the verdicts would hold up on appeal.
As the archbishop wrote, "in the sad case of accusations of sexual abuse by clerics, the procedures established by the Code of Canon Law must be meticulously followed under pain of invalidity of the acts involved if the priest so punished were to make hierarchical recourse against his Bishop."
The Vatican did not wish for procedural error to lead to cases in which a guilty priest was exonerated in a higher court.
At the time, the Vatican, as the ultimate authority in cases of clergy misconduct, was still trying to formulate guidelines for how to deal with accusations of child sexual abuse by priests. There were differences of opinion between the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The policy took shape eventually in 2001, when then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger ensured that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith assumed competency for allegations of sexual abuse and eliminated bishops' doubt of where to report possible cases.
Martin Long, the Irish bishops’ communications director, told CNA on Jan. 19 that the bishops “fully agree” with Father Lombardi’s interpretation of the 1997 letter.
He added that the existence of the letter "is not new news."
"Relevant extracts" of this letter were included in an official report to the Archdiocese of Dublin published by the Irish government in November 2009.
He said the Irish Church has been following the mandatory reporting requirements since 1996, with the Vatican’s support.
He pointed out that Pope Benedict XVI’s open letter to Irish Catholics last March urged the Church to continue implementing its current child protection plan and protocol throughout the Church.
"Central to these 'safeguarding children' guidelines was the policy of mandatory reporting of all abuse allegations," said Long.
He added, "The Vatican has stated on a number of occasions in recent years that a Catholic's obligation to the law of the Church does not in any way prevent him from fulfilling his obligation to report allegations of abuse to the civil authorities,” he said. "The Vatican has been absolutely clear on this point.”