The Vatican on Saturday vigorously rejected claims it sabotaged efforts by Irish bishops to report priests who sexually abused children to police and accused the Irish prime minister of making an "unfounded" attack against the Holy See.
Irish officials defended their claims that the Vatican exacerbated the abuse crisis and criticized the Holy See for offering an overly "legalistic" response to the scandal.
The Vatican issued a 24-page response to the Irish government following Prime Minister Enda Kenny's unprecedented July 20 denunciation of the Vatican's handling of abuse — a speech that was cheered by abuse-weary Irish Catholics but stunned the Vatican and prompted it to recall its ambassador.
Kenny's speech was inspired by the publication of a government-mandated independent report into the County Cork diocese of Cloyne, which found that the Vatican had undermined attempts by Irish bishops to protect children from predator priests.
The Cloyne document was the fourth such report to come out in recent years on the colossal scale of priestly sex abuse and coverup in Ireland. But it was the first to squarely find the Vatican culpable in promoting the culture of secrecy and coverup that kept abusers in ministry and able to prey on more children.
The Cloyne report based much of its accusations against the Holy See on a 1997 letter from the Vatican's ambassador to Ireland to the country's bishops expressing "serious reservations" about their policy requiring bishops to report abusers to police.
The Cloyne report
The report charged that the Vatican's 1997 letter "effectively gave individual Irish bishops the freedom to ignore the procedures which they had agreed and gave comfort and support to those who ... dissented from the stated official church policy."
A committee of Irish bishops had adopted the policy in 1996 under mounting public pressure as the first coverups came to light, a year after a former altar boy became the first abuse victim in Ireland to go public with a lawsuit against the church.
The Cloyne report charged that the Vatican's 1997 letter "effectively gave individual Irish bishops the freedom to ignore the procedures which they had agreed and gave comfort and support to those who ... dissented from the stated official church policy."
The Vatican concurred that, taken out of context, the 1997 letter could give rise to "understandable criticism." But it said the letter had been misinterpreted, that the Cloyne report's conclusions were "inaccurate" and that Kenny's denunciation was "unfounded."
In his speech, Kenny accused the Holy See of frustrating the Cloyne inquiry. "In doing so, the Cloyne Report excavates the dysfunction, the disconnection, the elitism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day," he said.
In its response, the Vatican charged back that "it in no way hampered or interfered with the inquiry" and never sought to undermine or interfere with Irish civil law.
After reading the report, Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore shot back Saturday: "I remain of the view that the 1997 letter from the then-nuncio provided a pretext for some to avoid full co-operation with Irish civil authorities."
The Vatican noted that at the time, in the mid-1990s, there was no law in Ireland requiring professionals to report suspected abuse to police and that the issue was a matter of intense debate politically.
No law against failure to report suspected abuse
In fact, Ireland has never had a law explicitly making the failure to report suspected child abuse a crime, but is planning to draft one now in the wake of the Cloyne report.
"Given that the Irish government of the day decided not to legislate on the matter, it is difficult to see how (the Vatican's) letter to the Irish bishops, which was issued subsequently, could possibly be construed as having somehow subverted Irish law or undermined the Irish state in its efforts to deal with the problem in question," the Vatican said.
The response said the Vatican's concerns about mandatory reporting weren't designed to thwart police investigations, but were designed to simply ensure that church law was followed to prevent abusive priests from being able to overturn any church sanctions on appeal.
The Vatican has detailed internal policies for investigating priestly sex abuse, with sanctions that include being dismissed from the clerical state. Such norms, however, were rarely if ever followed and abusive priests were shuffled from diocese to diocese just as they were in the United States and elsewhere. And critically, it wasn't until last year that the Vatican ever told bishops to co-operate with civil authorities in reporting abusive priests.
The Cloyne report also admonished the Vatican for diminishing the bishops' abuse policy as a mere "study document" in the 1997 letter, implying that it wasn't an official policy that needed to be followed.
The policy had been presented at the time as mandatory for all of Ireland's bishops: they staged a news conference to announce it, the country's highest ranking prelate wrote a forward to the policy, and individual bishops pledged to implement it.
Policy never legally binding, Vatican says
The Vatican, however, said Saturday the policy was never legally binding because the Irish bishops themselves had never sought to make it so by submitting it for official approval by the Vatican.
In fact, the Vatican response cites a letter from the then-head of the Irish bishops' conference saying the policy wasn't even an official conference publication but rather a report from an advisory committee containing a code of "recommended practice."
Another letter to the Vatican from the conference No. 2 said the policy wasn't approved by the conference and was merely offered to individual bishops as guidelines "that could — and indeed should — be followed."
"Since the Irish bishops did not choose to seek recognition for the Framework Document, the Holy See cannot be criticized for failing to grant what was never requested in the first place," the Vatican said.
Gilmore blasted such a technical, "legalistic" argument.
"The sexual abuse of children is such a heinous and reprehensible crime that issues about the precise status of documents should not be allowed to obscure the obligation of people in positions of responsibility to deal promptly with such abuse and report it," he said.
"The sense of betrayal which was felt by Irish people about this matter, and which was clearly expressed by (Kenny), came about not only because of the nature of child abuse itself but also because of the unique position which the Catholic Church enjoyed in this country, manifested in many ways, over many decades."
The Vatican stood by its terminology calling it a "study document" — but for the first time publicly acknowledged its very existence and seemed to support it. Even in Pope Benedict XVI's comprehensive letter to the Irish people last year, in which he apologized for the abuse, he made no reference to the 1996 policy or the other two that succeeded it, in 2003 and 2008.
Critics have argued that that lack of Vatican acknowledgment that a policy to combat abuse even existed had emboldened those bishops who never intended to follow the policy in the first place.
The 1997 letter from the Vatican's ambassador based its findings on a review of the Irish policy by the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy. At the time, the congregation was headed by Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, who has routinely defended the church's practice of not reporting abuse to police in favour of guarding the rights of accused priests.
Vatican cites speech supporting `path of civil justice`
Surprisingly, the Vatican response Saturday cites a 1998 speech Castrillon Hoyos delivered to Irish bishops in which he acknowledged that the church and its priests "should not in any way put an obstacle in the legitimate path of civil justice."
The response doesn't, however, cite the rest of his speech, in which he resoundingly criticized the Irish mandatory reporting policy, said it should be revised and that such reporting requirements risked that "the image of the bishop can be turned into more of a policeman than a true father."
He claimed that such policies seemed inspired more by insurance company lawyers concerned about diocesan legal liability than canon lawyers, and urged the bishops to fight "all the way up to the highest courts" to defend bishops against any claims of liability for abusive priests.
He acknowledged that such crimes need to be dealt with quickly, but warned against "obsessive" pursuit of accused priests by bishops because of the damage it can do to the priests, whose souls, he said, were "at the centre of the affair."
"If he is guilty, we must, before anything else, be involved with his conversion," Castrillon Hoyos said. "If as often happens, he is a victim of calumny, we must help him to prove his innocence and carry this cross."
The speech was provided to The Associated Press by the Vatican press office after inquiries were made about it. It is a remarkable document demonstrating what many victims' advocates consider the Vatican's misplaced concern for the rights of priests over the welfare of children.
Cardinal Sean Brady, leader of Ireland's 4 million Catholics, said the time that it took the Vatican to respond to the Cloyne report, and the thoroughness of its reply, showed the seriousness of the issue for the Holy See.
"I believe it will contribute to the healing of those who have been hurt and also to a closer working together of all concerned with the safeguarding of children," he said in a statement.
One prominent Irish victim, Marie Collins, said the Vatican's defence highlighted the need for Ireland to pass a law making the non-reporting of suspected child abuse a specific crime.
"As long as it's not there, the church can defend its own actions as the document does," she said. The AP generally doesn't name victims of sexual abuse but Collins is a prominent victims' advocate in Ireland.