Late Thursday afternoon, Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi released a statement about a letter from 2001 in which a cardinal appears to applaud a French bishop for his decision to not report a case of priestly sexual abuse to civil authorities. The spokesman said that cases such as this one highlight the importance of changes that were made giving the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith jurisdiction over cases of sexual abuse of minors.
A letter from September 8, 2001 has been published online by French magazine Golias, in which then-prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, offered congratulations to Bishop Pierre Pican for choosing not to report a priest who had been accused of sexual abuse to civil authorities.
The priest, Abbot Renè Bissey, was sentenced in 1998 to 18 years in prison for his abuses of minors, according to Italy's La Stampa. Bishop Pican later received a three month sentence for withholding information.
In 2001, Cardinal Hoyos wrote him a letter in which he says, "I congratulate you for not having reported a priest to the civil administration."
The cardinal adds later that he "rejoices" that he has a brother in the episcopate who would choose prison over reporting a priest under his watch.
Responding on Thursday, Fr. Lombardi said that the letter serves as confirmation of how timely the decision made in 2001 to channel all cases of sexual abuse through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was. This move guaranteed a “rigorous and coherent management," the spokesman said.
Prior to 2001, all cases of sexual abuse involving priests went to the Congregation for the Clergy, and at that time, there was a disagreement between cardinals about whether priests who were found guilty should be prosecuted under both civil and canon law or just under Church law.
Referring to the change in jurisdiction, Fr. Lombardi explained that it happened with the approval of John Paul II's Motu Proprio in May of that year.
After assuming control of the case load, then-Cardinal Ratzinger implemented norms for dealing with cases of sexual abuse by priests, which were made public by the Vatican on April 12.