DUBLIN – A new investigation into the Catholic Church's chronic cover-up of child abuse found Wednesday that a rural diocese and its bishop ignored Irish church rules requiring all suspected molestation cases to be reported to police — and the Vatican encouraged this concealment.
The government, which ordered the probe into 1996-2009 cover-ups in the County Cork diocese of Cloyne, warned that parishes across Ireland could pose a continuing danger to children's welfare today given Cloyne's claims to be following church child-protection policy while actually ignoring it.
Justice Minister Alan Shatter pledged to pass a new law making it an imprisonable crime to withhold knowledge of suspected child abuse as he published the investigation into the Cloyne diocese in southwest Ireland.
Shatter said previous pledges by Irish church leaders to place Irish civil law first and report all abuse cases dating back to 1995 had been "built on sand." He said it was an open question whether other dioceses, 23 of which have yet to be investigated, were still withholding evidence of crimes and presenting an ongoing threat to children.
The 341-page Cloyne report is the fourth state fact-finding probe into how church leaders for decades protected their own reputation — and their own pedophile staff members from the law — at the expense of Irish children. A string of scandals and revelations since 1994 has decimated the church's reputation and standing in this once-devoutly Catholic nation.
The report by an independent commission led by Judge Yvonne Murphy found that former Cloyne Bishop John Magee and senior aides failed to tell police anything about most abuse reports and withheld basic information in all but one case. Magee, who before becoming Cloyne bishop in 1987 was a private secretary to three popes, resigned last year after a church-appointed commission made similar findings against him.
Wednesday's document detailed the church's suppression of information on 19 suspected child-abusing priests, one of whom is currently facing criminal charges. Another has already been convicted, while most of the others are dead or extremely elderly. Ireland's Supreme Court has already ruled one too old and frail to stand trial.
The claims of abuse that the investigators pursued all surfaced from 1996 onward, but sometimes were alleged to have occurred a decade or more previously when the claimants were children.
Shatter and Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald called Magee's failures particularly shocking because, unlike other Irish inquiries, the Cloyne cases were the most recent and occurred after Irish church leaders, including himself, officially committed themselves to inflexible, detailed child-protection policies. The report said Magee repeatedly claimed to be observing these policies but did virtually the opposite.
"That's the most horrifying aspect of this document. This is not a catalog of failure from a different era. This is not about an Ireland of 50 years ago. This is about Ireland now," Fitzgerald said.
The report said Magee and his senior aide for handling complaints, Monsignor Denis O'Callaghan, were blind to the reality that their protection of accused priests meant that more children could suffer molestation. It noted that, in one case, O'Callaghan told police the name of an alleged victim — but refused to provide the name of the priest.
O'Callaghan conceded in a statement that in some cases he "became emotionally and pastorally drawn to the plight of the accused. ... I did try to respond to victims with kindness and I am deeply sorry that I failed so many of them."
The report, anticipating O'Callaghan's words, said it accepted "that he was personally kind in many respects to some complainants, but kindness is not enough when dealing with criminal activity or with people who have been abused."
The primate for Ireland's 4 million Catholics, Cardinal Sean Brady, and the official who replaced Magee in Cloyne, Archbishop Dermot Clifford, issued their own apologies and pledged greater openness and cooperation with state authorities.
Brady himself last year admitted he helped to conceal the crimes of one serial-rapist priest from Irish authorities in the mid-1970s but rejected calls to resign.
Magee, a private secretary to Popes Paul VI, John Paul I and John Paul II, said he took "full responsibility" for what he called "the flawed implementation of the church procedures."
"I now realize that I should have taken a much firmer role in ensuring their implementation," said Magee, who was the fifth Irish bishop to resign amid accusations they encouraged the endangerment of children.
The report condemned Magee's oversight of abuse cases as incompetent and deceptive.
It said he took no hands-on interest in enacting the Irish church's child-protection policies until 2008; established a bogus committee for reviewing abuse cases that never met once after 1995; and produced widely differing written records on one priest's case — one for diocesan officials that omitted the priest's face-to-face admission of abusing children, the other a more detailed account for Vatican eyes only.
And Irish government leaders and abuse-rights advocates said the Vatican itself bore heavy responsibility for encouraging cover-ups since 1996.
They and the investigators emphasized that Ireland's bishops formally agreed in 1995 to begin reporting suspected child-abuse cases to police in rules that became valid Jan. 1, 1996. The Irish church took that step after the first abuse victims went public with their lawsuits, a development that opened the floodgates for more than 13,000 such cases.
But a confidential January 1997 letter from the Vatican's diplomat in Ireland to the Irish bishops warned them that the Irish church's child-protection policies were invalid under Catholic canon law; those internal church laws must be respected foremost; and any accused priests were likely to have any punishments successfully appealed in Rome.
The letter's author, the late Archbishop Luciano Storero, then Pope John Paul II's ambassador to Ireland, dismissed the Irish policy as representing "a study document."
When The Associated Press reported the contents of that previously secret letter in January, Vatican officials claimed its meaning was being misunderstood and not a call to secrecy.
But the investigators said the Vatican's message was clear — and empowered those church leaders in Ireland who wanted to reject the 1996 policy and keep pedophile priests away from the police's attention.
"There can be no doubt that this letter greatly strengthened the position of those in the church in Ireland who did not approve of the (1996) Framework Document as it effectively cautioned them against its implementation," their report said.
Shatter said the Vatican's dismissal of the 1996 child-protection initiative "was entirely unhelpful, giving comfort and support to those who dissented from the guidelines. We want to say as clearly as we can that this approach, when the state was entitled to rely on assurances about the operation of the guidelines, was wholly unacceptable."
Vatican officials declined to comment on the findings of the Irish investigation or the government's criticisms.
In his 2010 pastoral letter to Ireland's Catholics condemning pedophiles in the ranks, Pope Benedict XVI faulted bishops for failing to follow canon law and offered no explicit endorsement of Irish child-protection efforts by the Irish church or state. Benedict was widely criticized in Ireland for failing to admit any Vatican role in covering up the truth.
Irish President Mary McAleese, who once represented the Catholic Church as a lawyer, said children could have been saved from molestation if the Irish church's 1996 guidelines had been accepted from the start.
"The narrative set out in the Cloyne report indicates that the leadership of the Catholic Church needs to urgently reflect on how, by coherent and effective action, it can restore public trust and confidence in its stated objective of putting children first," McAleese said.
Activists seeking the truth on Catholic abuse cases in Ireland and abroad expressed deep skepticism that the Vatican and Irish church leaders will ever do this.
"The Cloyne report is disheartening confirmation that even today, despite the church's knowledge of the profound anguish of thousands of victims, its reform policies are public relations ploys, not true child protection programs," said Anne Barrett Doyle, Boston-based director of BishopAccountability.org, an online database documenting the Catholic sex-abuse crisis worldwide.
Barbara Blaine, president of a U.S.-based pressure group called Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the report's conclusion that the Vatican encouraged the Cloyne cover-ups "should surprise no one."
"A key reason bishops ignore, minimize and hide child sex crimes," she said, "is because Vatican officials have largely urged, and sometimes insisted, that they do so."
Cloyne report, http://bit.ly/pyi8oF