DUBLIN – A 1997 letter from the Vatican warned Ireland’s Catholic bishops not to report all suspected child-abuse cases to police – a disclosure that victims’ groups described as “the smoking gun” needed to show that the church enforced a worldwide culture of covering up crimes by pedophile priests.
The newly revealed letter, obtained by Irish broadcasters RTE and provided to the Associated Press, documents the Vatican’s rejection of a 1996 Irish church initiative to begin helping police identify pedophile priests following Ireland’s first wave of publicly disclosed lawsuits.
The letter undermines persistent Vatican claims, particularly when seeking to defend itself in U.S. lawsuits, that Rome never instructed local bishops to withhold evidence or suspicion of crimes from police. It instead emphasizes the church’s right to handle all child-abuse allegations and determine punishments in house rather than give that power to civil authorities.
The Vatican early today insisted that its response to the Irish bishops was designed to ensure that guilty priests not avoid punishment and that all possible canonical crimes were also dealt with.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi noted that often, pedophile priests solicited sex during confession – a particularly heinous church crime which, because it occurred within the seal of confessional, is dealt with under strict secrecy within church law and with its own particular norms.
The 1997 letter, signed by the late Archbishop Luciano Storero, Pope John Paul II’s diplomat to Ireland, instructs Irish bishops that their new policy of making the reporting of suspected crimes mandatory “gives rise to serious reservations of both a moral and canonical nature.”
Storero wrote that canon law, which required abuse allegations and punishments to be handled within the church, “must be meticulously followed.” Any bishops who tried to impose punishments outside the confines of canon law would face the “highly embarrassing” position of having their actions overturned on appeal in Rome, he wrote.
Child-abuse activists in Ireland said the 1997 letter demonstrates that the protection of pedophile priests from criminal investigation was not only sanctioned by Vatican leaders but also ordered by them.
Joelle Casteix, a director of the U.S. advocacy group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, described the letter as “the smoking gun we’ve been looking for.”