VATICAN CITY – In a new round of damage control, the Vatican insisted Wednesday that a 1997 letter warning Irish bishops against reporting priests suspected of sex abuse to police had been "deeply misunderstood."
The Associated Press on Tuesday reported the contents of the letter, in which the Vatican's top diplomat in Ireland told bishops that their policy of mandatory reporting such cases to police "gives rise to serious reservations of both a moral and canonical nature."
The newly revealed letter, obtained originally by Irish broadcaster RTE from an Irish bishop, has undermined persistent Vatican claims, particularly when seeking to defend itself in U.S. lawsuits, that Rome never told bishops not to cooperate with police.
An Irish government-ordered investigation into decades of abuse cover-ups in the Dublin Archdiocese concluded that Irish bishops understood the letter to mean they shouldn't report suspected crimes.
And victims groups say it's a "smoking gun" that shows that the church enforced a worldwide culture of concealing crimes by pedophile priests of which Rome bears ultimate — and legal — responsibility.
"The letter confirms that the cover-up goes as far as the Vatican, that Vatican officials knew exactly what was going on, and that they proactively sought to deter Irish bishops from cooperating with civil authorities in Ireland," said Andrew Madden, a former Dublin altar boy who was raped repeatedly by a priest, Ivan Payne, in the 1980s.
"This letter also documents how the church remained of the view that it is a law unto itself, how its rules and regulations regarding the handling of a criminal offense take precedence over civil society's laws," said Madden, who in 1995 became the first victim in Ireland to go public with a lawsuit against the church.
On Wednesday, the Vatican insisted the 1997 letter was only intended to emphasize that Irish bishops must follow church law meticulously. The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the Holy See wanted to ensure that pedophile priests wouldn't have any technical grounds to escape church punishment on appeal.
It by no means instructed bishops to disregard civil reporting requirements about abuse, added the Vatican's U.S. lawyer, Jeffrey Lena, who said the letter had been "deeply misunderstood" by the media.
At the time, there were no such reporting requirements in Ireland. In fact, the Irish bishops were ahead of Irish lawmakers in pledging cooperation with law enforcement as dioceses were hit with the first lawsuits by victims of abusive priests.
Yet as a result of the 1997 letter, most Irish dioceses never implemented the 1996 commitment to report all suspected abuse cases to police, according to the conclusions of the government-mandated investigation into the Dublin Archdiocese published in 2009.
"This in fact never took place because of the response of Rome," the commission said in its report, although it quoted Dublin Archdiocese officials as saying it was implemented there.
That eight-year inquiry interviewed two senior Dublin Archdiocese canon lawyers involved in handling abuse complaints. They were quoted as saying the letter discouraged bishops from pursuing their 1996 initiative for fear of being overruled by Rome, as had already happened in one notorious case of a serial pedophile.
The AP has requested interviews with both officials, Monsignors Alex Stenson and John Dolan. But the Dublin Archdiocese said Wednesday that no officials would be available to comment on either the 2009 investigation or the publication of the Vatican's 1997 letter.
In that letter, Pope John Paul II's diplomat to Ireland, Archbishop Luciano Storero, told the Irish bishops that their 1996 policy contained procedures that appeared to contradict canon law and stressed the need to follow that law "meticulously" or risk having their canonical trials overturned on appeal.
The Irish bishops' policy makes clear, with dozens of citations, that canon law must be followed when a bishop learns of an abuse allegation. That raises questions about what — beyond the police reporting requirement — the Vatican was so concerned about in its letter.
Lombardi said Wednesday the Vatican was chiefly concerned about protecting the church's right to deal with crimes that occurred within the sacrament of confession. The Vatican has particular norms with dealing with the crime of soliciting sex from a minor within the confessional that require church proceedings be kept strictly secret.
Plaintiffs' lawyers have charged that those norms mandated non-reporting to police; Lena has argued in court papers they did no such thing.
Irish victims' groups described Lombardi's explanation as nonsensical and irrelevant to the overwhelming majority of thousands of abuse cases, which did not involve the confessional.
They said almost without exception, church officials learned of sexual assaults by priests outside the confessional — from victims or their parents who generally were seeking to prevent the priest from attacking anyone else.
They noted that the Vatican has consistently ignored letters from several Irish investigations seeking church documents, such as the 1997 letter, that would shed light on the scope of Catholic child abuse and any cover-up.
"Even within the narrow confines of canon law, raising the question of the sacrament of confession as a credible reason for withholding child-abuse reports to police makes zero sense in Irish experience and, presumably, global experience of the church's actual pattern — to cover up and conceal crimes regardless of whether an act of confession was involved," said Maeve Lewis, director of Ireland's abuse victims support group One in Four.
She said the real reason the Vatican didn't want bishops to report abuse was to shelter the church from scandal and lawsuits.
"We know from bitter experience that the letter's threat to overturn any punishments imposed by the Irish church was real and perversely executed in the case of Tony Walsh," she said.
Walsh was defrocked by a canonical court in Dublin in 1993, but appealed the punishment to Rome, which decided the next year he should be reinstated as a priest and instead sent to a monastery.
Cardinal Desmond Connell, former archbishop of Dublin, got Walsh defrocked only after his criminal trial in Dublin had begun and Connell had made a personal plea to John Paul, explaining that no Irish monastery was willing to take him.
U.S. attorney Jeffrey Anderson, who has filed lawsuits against the Holy See and its officials in Oregon and Wisconsin, said the letter bolstered his argument that church officials in Rome were part of a "conspiracy to suppress evidence of sexual abuse by priests." In a statement, he said he believed that there were other "smoking guns secretly vaulted away in the bowels of the Vatican fortress in Rome."
Plaintiffs' attorneys have repeatedly sought to have discovery of Vatican documents and to question Vatican officials under oath to boost their claims. So far the Holy See has avoided their attempts by arguing U.S. courts don't have subject matter jurisdiction over the Vatican because it enjoys foreign sovereign immunity.
The Vatican also insisted Wednesday that the Irish policy was a mere "study" document that it reviewed, not a policy document of the bishops' conference. Yet at the time it was issued, Irish bishops announced it effectively as policy: A full press conference was held to release it and announce the new pledge to report abuse, and the church's top prelate in Ireland said in the forward of the report that it should be enacted by all dioceses.
The 1997 letter cited the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy, which had reviewed the Irish document and expressed reservations.
At the time, the Congregation for the Clergy was led by Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, who has routinely defended the church's practice of not reporting abuse to police in favor of guarding the rights of accused priests. At the height of the Vatican's sex abuse scandal last year, Castrillon Hoyos told a Colombian radio station that no one should be forced to report abuse.
"The law in nations with a well-developed judiciary does not force anyone to testify against a child, a father, against other people close to the suspect," Castrillon told RCN radio. "Why would they ask that of the church? That's the injustice."
Lombardi in his statement noted that the letter was issued before the Vatican in May 2001 instructed bishops worldwide to send abuse cases to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for review.
The Vatican has insisted that its 2001 shift marked a turning point in the way it dealt with abuse. It has cited its 2001 norms as evidence that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, intended to get tough with pedophile priests.
The 2001 norms, however, say nothing about the need to report abuse to police and repeat the need for the canonical proceedings to be kept under pontifical secret to protect the reputations of all involved.
Later that same year, Castrillon Hoyos congratulated a French bishop in a letter for receiving a suspended prison sentence — his punishment for concealing knowledge of a priest convicted of raping and sexually abusing minors.
Only last year did the Vatican post a nonbinding, unofficial guide on its website saying bishops should follow civil reporting laws where they exist. Significantly, when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith updated its norms last summer, it again made no mention of the need to report abuse; the Vatican has said such a reference would be an incongruous melding of civil and canon law.
Two Irish government-commissioned reports — into the Dublin Archdiocese and workhouse-style Catholic institutions for children — unveiled decades of cover-ups of abuse involving tens of thousands of Irish children since the 1930s.
Irish bishops' 1996 document, http://bit.ly/dQgZFD
Dublin Archdiocese investigation, http://www.dacoi.ie/
Associated Press writer Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin contributed to this report.