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The Vatican intervened in a 1997 letter, obtained by The Associated Press this week, to advise the Irish church against reporting all allegations of sexual abuse by clergy to the police.

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 with the potential to fuel more lawsuits worldwide against the Vatican, which has long denied any involvement in coverups.

The letter, obtained by Irish broadcasters RTE and provided to The Associated Press, documents the Vatican's rejection of an Irish church initiative to begin helping police identify pedophile priests.

The letter's message undermines persistent Vatican claims that the church never instructed bishops to withhold evidence or suspicion of crimes from police. Instead, the letter emphasizes the church's right to handle all child-abuse allegations and determine punishments in house rather than hand that power to civil authorities.

Catholic officials in Ireland declined requests for 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. A key argument employed by the Vatican in defending dozens of lawsuits over clerical sex abuse in Canada and the United States is that it had no role in ordering local church authorities to suppress evidence of crimes.

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

To this day, the Vatican has yet to endorse any of the Irish church's three major policy documents since 1996 on reporting suspected child abuse to civil authorities. In his 2010 pastoral letter to the Irish people condemning pedophiles in the ranks, Pope Benedict XVI faulted Ireland's bishops for failing to follow canon law and offered no explicit endorsement of child-protection efforts by the Irish church or state.

Policy in place for years?

O'Gorman — who was raped repeatedly by an Irish priest 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.

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.

Two state-commissioned reports published in 2009 unveiled decades of coverups of abuse involving tens of thousands of children since the 1930s.

Irish church leaders didn't begin telling police about suspected pedophile priests until the mid-1990s. 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 the January 1997 letter seen Tuesday by the AP, the Vatican's diplomat in Ireland at the time, Archbishop Luciano Storero, told the bishops a senior church panel in Rome, the Congregation for the Clergy, had decided the Irish church's year-old policy of "mandatory" reporting of abuse claims conflicted with canon law.

Irish church told to follow '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." He said canon law, which required abuse allegations to be handled within the church, "must be meticulously followed."

Storero, who died in 2000, wrote, without elaborating, that mandatory reporting of child-abuse claims to police "gives rise to serious reservations of both a moral and a canonical nature."

He 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 letter, originally obtained by the RTE religious affairs program Would You Believe? said the Congregation for the Clergy in Rome was pursuing "a global study" of sexual-abuse policies and would establish worldwide child-protection policies "at the appropriate time."

The Vatican's child-protection policies today remain in legal limbo. It currently advises bishops worldwide to report crimes to police only in a legally non-binding lay guide, but it does not mention this in the official legal document provided by another powerful church body, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which continues to stress the secrecy of canon law.

The central message of Storero's letter was reported second-hand by two priests as part of Ireland's mammoth investigation into the 1975-2004 coverup of hundreds of child-abuse cases in the Dublin Archdiocese. The letter itself, marked "strictly confidential," has never been published before.