Vatican tries to tamp down abuse letter to Irish bishops

January 19, 2011

VATICAN CITY (RNS) The Vatican on Wednesday (Jan. 19) tried to tamp
down allegations a controversial 1997 letter to Irish bishops was meant
to discourage prelates from reporting sexual abuse cases to police or
prosecutors.


The Vatican's top spokesman said the letter from the Vatican's
ambassador to Ireland was meant to ensure the application of the
Catholic Church's internal disciplinary procedures against pedophile
priests.


The letter, signed by Archbishop Luciano Storero, was made public
for the first time on Monday (Jan. 17) in a television documentary
broadcast on the Irish network RTE.


Storero told bishops the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy had
expressed "serious reservations of both a moral and a canonical nature"
about a 1996 draft policy for the Irish church calling for "mandatory
reporting" of sex abuse claims to civil authorities.


Advocates for sex abuse victims quickly pointed to the letter as
evidence the Vatican had prevented bishops from turning pedophile
priests over to the police.


"A key Roman Catholic figure basically tells bishops that church
policy trumps criminal laws and that church officials, not secular
officials, get to quietly handle child molesters `in house,"' said a
statement from the U.S.-based Survivors' Network of those Abused by
Priests.


But according to the Rev. Federico Lombardi, head of the Vatican
press office, Storero's letter was intended only to guarantee the rigor
of the church's own internal measures against pedophile priests.


"The letter correctly insists on the importance of always respecting
canon law, precisely in order to ensure that the guilty have no basis
for an appeal" that could lead to overturning their penalties, Lombardi
said in a statement.


In the letter, Storero quoted a statement from the Congregation for
the Clergy warning that certain "procedures and dispositions" in the
proposed Irish policy "could invalidate the acts of the same bishops who
are attempting to put a stop to these problems."


Jeffrey Lena, an American lawyer representing the Vatican in sex
abuse cases, said in a statement the 1997 document "has been deeply
misunderstood."


"The letter nowhere instructed Irish bishops to disregard civil law
reporting requirements," Lena said, and was intended mainly "to help
ensure that bishops who discipline their priests for sexual abuse did so
in a manner that would ensure that the priest not avoid punishment based
upon technical grounds."