Vatican letter: Irish bishops were warned in ’97 not to report all child-abuse cases to police

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By Shawn Pogatchnik, The Associated Press | The Canadian Press

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  • This image shows a copy of a newly revealed 1997 letter from the Vatican, obtained by Irish broadcasters RTE and provided to The Associated Press, warning 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 Vatican enforced a worldwide culture of cover-up. The letter 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. (AP Photo/RTE)Enlarge PhotoThis image shows a copy of a newly revealed 1997 letter from the Vatican, obtained …

DUBLIN – A newly revealed 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 Vatican enforced a worldwide culture of coverup.

The 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 the church in 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 hand that power to civil authorities.

Signed by the late Archbishop Luciano Storero, Pope John Paul II’s diplomat to Ireland, the letter 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.” He warned that 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.

Catholic officials in Ireland and the Vatican declined AP requests to comment on the letter, which RTE said it received from an Irish bishop.

Child-abuse activists in Ireland said the 1997 letter should demonstrate, once and for all, that the protection of pedophile priests from criminal investigation was not only sanctioned by Vatican leaders but ordered by them.

“The letter is of huge international significance, because it shows that the Vatican’s intention is to prevent reporting of abuse to criminal authorities. And if that instruction applied here, it applied everywhere,” said Colm O’Gorman, director of the Irish chapter of human rights watchdog Amnesty International.

Joelle Casteix, a director of U.S. advocacy group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, described the letter as “the smoking gun we’ve been looking for.”

Casteix said it was certain to be cited by victims’ lawyers seeking to pin responsibility directly on the Vatican rather than local dioceses. She said investigators long have sought such a document showing Vatican pressure on a group of bishops “thwarting any kind of justice for victims.”

“We now have evidence that the Vatican deliberately intervened to order bishops not to turn pedophile priests over to law enforcement,” she said. “And for civil lawsuits, this letter shows what victims have been saying for dozens and dozens of years: What happened to them involved a concerted coverup that went all the way to the top.”

To this day, the Vatican has not endorsed any of the Irish church’s three major policy documents since 1996 on safeguarding children from clerical abuse. Irish taxpayers, rather than the church, have paid most of the €1.5 billion ($2 billion) to more than 14,000 abuse claimants dating back to the 1940s.

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.

O’Gorman — who was raped repeatedly by an Irish priest in the 1980s when he was an altar boy and was among the first victims to speak out in the mid-1990s — said evidence is mounting that some Irish bishops continued to follow the 1997 Vatican instructions and withheld reports of crimes against children as recently as 2008.

Two state-commissioned reports published in 2009 — into the Dublin Archdiocese and workhouse-style Catholic institutions for children — unveiled decades of coverups of abuse involving tens of thousands of Irish children since the 1930s.

A third major state-ordered investigation into Catholic abuse coverups, concerning the southwest Irish diocese of Cloyne, is expected to be published within the next few months documenting the concealment of crimes as recently as 2008.

Irish church leaders didn’t begin telling police about suspected pedophile priests until the mid-1990s after the first major scandal — of a priest, Brendan Smyth, who had raped dozens of children while the church transferred him to parishes in Dublin, Belfast, Rhode Island and North Dakota — triggered the collapse of the entire Irish government. That national shock, in turn, inspired the first victims to begin suing the church publicly.

In January 1996, Irish bishops published a groundbreaking policy document spelling out their newfound determination to report all suspected abuse cases to police.

But in his January 1997 letter seen Tuesday by the AP, Storero told the bishops that a senior church panel in Rome, the Congregation for the Clergy, had decided that the Irish church’s policy of “mandatory” reporting of abuse claims conflicted with canon law.

Storero emphasized in the letter that the Irish church’s policy was not recognized by the Vatican and was “merely a study document.”

Storero warned that bishops who followed the Irish child-protection policy and reported a priest’s suspected crimes to police ran the risk of having their in-house punishments of the priest overturned by the Congregation for the Clergy.

The 2009 Dublin Archdiocese report found that this actually happened in the case of Tony Walsh, one of Dublin’s most notorious pedophiles, who used his role as an Elvis impersonator in a popular “All Priests Show” to get closer to kids.

Walsh in 1993 was kicked out of the priesthood by a secret Dublin church court — but successfully appealed the punishment to a Vatican court, which reinstated him to the priesthood in 1994. He raped a boy in a pub restroom at his grandfather’s funeral wake that year. Walsh since has received a series of prison sentences, most recently a 12-year term imposed last month. Investigators estimate he raped or molested more than 100 children.

Storero’s 1997 letter, originally obtained by RTE religious affairs program “Would You Believe?”, said the Congregation for the Clergy was pursuing “a global study” of sexual-abuse policies and would establish worldwide child-protection policies “at the appropriate time.”

Today, the Vatican’s child-protection policies remain in legal limbo.

The Vatican does advise bishops worldwide to report crimes to police — in a legally nonbinding lay guide on its Web site. This recourse is omitted from the official legal advice provided by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and updated last summer. That powerful policymaking body continues to stress the secrecy of canon law.

The central message of Storero’s letter was reported secondhand in the 2009 Dublin Archdiocese report. The letter itself, marked “strictly confidential,” has never been published before.

9 Responses to Vatican letter: Irish bishops were warned in ’97 not to report all child-abuse cases to police

  1. Sylvia says:

    Storei (the Nuncio in Ireland) told the Irish bishops in his 1997 letter that ‘a senior church panel in Rome, the Congregation for the Clergy, had decided that the Irish church’s policy of “mandatory” reporting of abuse claims conflicted with canon law.’

    An interesting little Canadian-related tid bit here…

    The head of the Congregation of the Clergy in 1997 was Archbishop Castrillon Hoyos. Once installed as Cardinal Hoyos carried the title Prefect of the Congregation for Clergy. Hoyos headed the Congregation for Clergy from 1996-2006.

    When Hoyos was consecrated bishop in 1971 he chose as his principal consecrator Archbishop Angelo Palmas. (Palmas was then Apostolic Nuncio to Columbia)

    Many Catholics will recall that Archbishop Palmas, now deceased, served as Apostolic Nuncio to Canada, from 1990 to 2003. [addendum: I have erred seriously. Palmas left Canada in 1993 and died in 2003. He was replaced by Curis.]
    I will leave it at that.

  2. Hi Sylvia,

    What conclusion are you implying by noting that +Palmas was one of the consecrating Bishops at +Hoyos ordination to the episcopate? It usually just means that the latter was mentored by the former, or that they were friends from their earlier careers in the Vatican.

    Just curious about the point you are trying to make. Thanks.

    Fr. Tim

    • John Mac Donald says:

      Father Tim….I look forward to your blogs on here as it is always interesting to get an insiders (so to speak) point of view. I wish that you would comment on the letter from the Vatican and not Sylvia’s minor error about minor facts surrounding some of the people involved concerning the letter. I look forward to your thoughts.

      John

  3. Sylvia says:

    That’s the only point I was making Father. They were obviously friends.

  4. Sylvia says:

    I should have mentioned Father that I elaborated on my thoughts on Hoyos and Palmas in my early morning blog: http://www.theinquiry.ca/wordpress/2011/01/19/the-hunted/ (scroll down)

  5. Sylvia says:

    And, Father, it’s time for me to eat humble pie. A major mistake on my part. Yes the pair were friends, but Palmas was gone from Canada in 1990.

  6. Larry Green says:

    Tim: Just curious about your thoughts on the more substantial state of these affairs!

  7. Larry Green says:

    Corruption in the Vatican is the issue. Not that protecting the integrity of a particular Bishop is not important , but at the heart of all this whole reality is the fact that the involvement of so many “holy men” knowingly, wilfully and deliberately chose to expose so many innocent and unsuspecting children to be used for play things for so many pedophile priests and that to me is in more urgent need of address and the enormity of it’s important should not be subverted by a trivial mistake having nothing to do with the damage and destruction that has been sustained.

  8. Lina says:

    The Catholic Church, the moving of these problem priests around. All that hiding, delaying justice for all those endless criminal acts. It’s not fiction or made up but it is the REALITY of the Catholic Church’s way…the business.

    What is sad the hierarchy of the Catholic Church continues to expect their priests to remain loyal in spreading the good news in forms of deceptions (lies) to their followers about downplaying the clergy abuse problems.
    Do not expect your local Catholic priest to admit this because it’s only second nature to him to deny or just give you that far away look that he is ready to ponce on you with a litany of fear tactics that he learned in his days while he was in the seminary. Or outside the seminary.

    To these priests that know more than they are willing to admit is: to see no evil, hear no evil & speak no evil about the criminal clergy stuff & the victims.

    It is so easy to blame the media, the ex-Catholics, the Cafeteria Catholics, victims, etc… Do not blame the Monsignors(R. Borne), Bishops, Cardinals (especially Bernard Law, USA) or the Pope…it is just not nice to go there. They need to keep pleasing that holy Hierarchy no matter what.

    Many others victims, survivors will come forward but that will not matter to many hard core faithful Catholics because they believe everything that comes out of the Vatican, their priest & the Pope’s mouth must be true.

    I believe plenty of Catholics are Catholics because they were born into the Catholic & lack the intellectual curiosity needed to think about why they are Catholics.

    I do not know for sure but that may be the nature of a cult?

    Lina

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