A newly disclosed document reveals that Vatican officials instructed the bishops of Ireland in 1997 that they must not adopt a policy of reporting priests suspected of child abuse to the police or civil authorities.
The document appears to contradict Vatican claims that the hierarchy in Rome never determined the actions of local bishops in abuse cases, and that the church did not impede criminal investigations of accused child abusers.
Abuse victims in Ireland and the United States quickly proclaimed the document to be a “smoking gun” that would serve as important evidence in lawsuits against the Vatican. But a spokesman for the Vatican said that the document, while authentic, only serves as further proof that past missteps on handling sexual abuse allegations were reformed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was a top official in the Vatican even before he became the current pope, Benedict XVI.
The document, a two-page letter, was first revealed by the Irish broadcaster RTE and obtained by The Associated Press. At least some version of the letter has been published on various sites around the Internet.
The letter was written just after a first wave of scandal over sexual abuse by priests in Irish Catholic schools and other facilities — a scandal that brought down the Irish government.
In 1997, an advisory committee of Irish bishops had drawn up a new policy that included “mandatory reporting” of suspected abusers to civil authorities. The letter, signed by the late Archbishop Luciano Storero, the Vatican’s apostolic nuncio — or chief representative — in Ireland warned the Irish bishops against implementing the reporting policy.
It said that for both “moral and canonical” reasons, the bishops must handle all accusations through internal church channels. Bishops who
disobeyed, the letter said, may face repercussions when their abuse cases were heard in Rome.
“The results could be highly embarrassing and detrimental to those same Diocesan authorities,” the letter said.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said he had not seen the letter, but confirmed its existence. He said that it represented an approach to sex abuse cases shaped by a particular Vatican office, the Congregation for the Clergy, before 2001. In that year, Pope John Paul II charged the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then led by the future Pope Benedict, with handling such cases.
“It refers to a situation that we’ve now moved beyond,” Father Lombardi said. “That approach has been surpassed, including its ideas about collaborating with civil authorities.
He downplayed the idea that the letter was a smoking gun. “It’s not new,” he said. “They’ve known about it in Ireland for some time.”
Even now, however, the Vatican has refrained from imposing rules for the church worldwide that would mandate reporting clergy accused of abuse to civil authorities. The reason, Vatican officials say, is that in some repressive countries that are hostile to the Catholic church, government officials could use abuse allegations as a pretext to persecute Catholic clergy.
Since the sex abuse crisis erupted in Europe last Spring, the Vatican has been working to clarify how local bishops conferences should handle sex abuse cases. In November, Cardinal William J. Levada, the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said the Vatican would soon issue new guidelines to bishops worldwide.