Vatican Undercut Irish Bishops’ Bold Child Abuse Policies, 1997 Letter Reveals

N. 808/97
Dublin, 31 January 1997
Strictly Confidential

Your Excellency,

The Congregation for the Clergy has attentively studied the complex question of sexual abuse of minors by clerics and the document entitled “Child Sexual Abuse : Framework for a Church Response”, published by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Advisory Committee.

The Congregation wishes to emphasize the need for this document to conform to the canonical norms presently in force.

The text, however, contains “procedures and dispositions which appear contrary to canonical discipline and which, if applied, could invalidate the acts of the same Bishops who are attempting to put a stop to these problems.  If such procedures were to be followed by the Bishops and there were cases of eventual hierarchical recourse lodged at the Holy See, the results could be highly embarrassing and detrimental to those same Diocesan authorities.

In particular, the situation of ‘mandatory reporting’ gives rise to serious reservations of both a moral and a canonical nature”.

Since the policies on sexual abuse in the English speaking world exhibit many of the same characteristics and procedures, the Congregation is involved in a global study of them.  At the appropriate time, with the collaboration of the interested Episcopal Conferences and in dialogue with them, the Congregation will not be remiss in establishing some concrete directives with regard to these Policies.

To: the Members of the Irish Episcopal Conference – their Dioceses.

For these reasons and because the above mentioned text is not an official document of the Episcopal Conference but merely a study document, I am directed to inform the individual Bishops of Ireland of the preoccupations of the Congregation in its regard, underlining that in the sad cases of accusations of sexual abuse by clerics, the procedures established by the Code of Canon Law must be meticulously followed under pain of invalidity of the acts involved if the priest so punished were to make hierarchical recourse against his Bishop.

Asking you to kindly let me know of the safe receipt of this letter and with the assurance of my cordial regard, I am [sic]

Yours sincerely in Christ,

+Luciano Storero
Apostolic Nuncio

Investigative journalist Mick Peelo, from the Irish TV show Would You Believe?, this week revealed a 1997 letter (see above) from the Vatican warning Ireland’s Catholic bishops not to report all suspected child-abuse cases to police. Apparently, Peelo received it 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,” writes AP reporter Shawn Pogatchnik. “A key argument employed by the Vatican in defending dozens of lawsuits over clerical sex abuse in the United States is that it had no role in ordering local church authorities to suppress evidence of crimes.”

In 1996 the Irish bishops responded to the massive number of allegations regarding child sexual abuse by adopting very bold policies (see “Child Sexual Abuse: Framework for a Church Response”) that, as Bishop Michael Smith put it, finally “put the child at the center.” In 1997, this new letter reveals, the Vatican immediately sought to undermine the approach taken by the Irish bishops.

“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.

AP reporter Shawn Pogatchnik explains further the importance of the letter:

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 that a senior church panel in Rome, the Congregation for the Clergy, had decided that the Irish church’s year-old 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.” He said canon law — which required abuse allegations to be handled within the church — “must be meticulously followed.”

Without elaborating Storero, who died in 2000, wrote 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.

Last March, when Pope Benedict wrote his “pastoral letter to the Catholics of Ireland” condemning pedophiles within the church, he blamed Irish bishops for failing to follow canon law, however he made no acknowledgment of the Vatican’s own role in secretly blocking the Irish bishop’s efforts to improve child protection and bring abuser priests to justice.

Would You Believe?’s 40-minute video “Unspeakable Crimes” is a fair and thorough examination of the culture of secrecy around sexual abuse cases that Pope Benedict is both trying to change and completely caught up in. Extensive interviews with members of Voice of the Faithful in Ireland, canon lawyers, bishops, priests, psychologists, and Vatican reporters.

The video is an excellent tool for Catholics who want to reflect together on the ongoing revelations around sexual abuse and how best to advance protection from abusive priests and the culture of clericalism that fosters secrecy and abuse.

The Irish church is currently in the midst of a “visitation” by Cardinal O’Malley regarding the sexual abuse scandal. But, as one person interviewed said, “It’s still not getting to the issue. This is a big problem that’s institutional. It’s bigger than the Irish church.”

Would You Believe? “Unspeakable Crimes” (January 17, 2011) VIDEO
Voice of the Faithful Ireland
Vatican warned Irish bishops not to report abuse By Shawn Pogatchnik, Associated Press (17 Jan 2011)
Child Sexual Abuse: Framework for a Church Response (1996) adopted by the Irish Catholic church
Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland from Pope Benedict XVI (March 20, 2010)