A Vatican letter leaked to the Irish press this week might have an effect on unresolved lawsuits involving sexual abuse by clergy in western Newfoundland, a St. John's lawyer says.
But Greg Stack, who has spent years representing more than 80 clients who suffered child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy and others, said the Vatican's secrecy and unique status pose formidable problems in gaining access to important documents.
The 1997 letter suggested that the Vatican had warned Catholic bishops to not report all suspected child abuse cases to the police.
Stack believes more documents like that could be found inside the Vatican that are relevant to sexual abuse cases in Newfoundland and Labrador, the first province in Canada to see large revelations of abuse by clergy as well as the lay Christian Brothers order.
"I believe there are. That's my belief," Stack told CBC News Thursday.
The arrest of Father Jim Hickey — a priest well known for crusades against pornography — in 1987 triggered a series of other such arrests and was followed by bombshell revelations in 1989 of widespread sexual abuse in the mid-1970s at the Mount Cashel Orphanage in St. John's.
A judicial inquiry into the Mount Cashel scandal investigated how two Christian Brothers were relocated to another province in 1975 in return for no criminal charges being laid.
The Winter Commission was appointed in 1989 by the Archdiocese of St. John's to investigate abuse by clergy. Its report detailed how priests were moved from one parish to another after complaints were made about abuse.
Stack noted that the former diocese of St. George's, which was based in Corner Brook and responsible for western and southern Newfoundland, sought bankruptcy protection after it was ordered to pay millions of dollars to the victims of one molesting priest, Kevin Bennett.
Since that diocese no longer exists, Stack said, the Vatican could be the place to take the legal fight.
"The reorganization of the Corner Brook diocese is a factor that has to be looked at when we strategize and try to decide if we're going to go and try to involve the Vatican in those lawsuits," Stack said.
However, he said, suing the Vatican would be complicated because it is considered a sovereign state, and the public does not have open access to its records.