Fr Federico LombardiA programme about clerical sexual abuse aired January 17 by Irish broadcaster RTE attempted to prove that the Vatican had a worldwide policy encouraging bishops to conceal sexual abuse by priests. Reliable reporters say that the programme, aired just ahead of a Vatican-sponsored Apostolic Visitation of the Irish church, failed to make its claim stick.

The doco, “Unspeakable Crimes”, was based on a January 1997 letter from the papal ambassador to Ireland, communicating the opinion of the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy about a set of proposed Irish policies on priestly sexual abuse. It confirms, says John Allen of National Catholic Reporter, “that in the late 1990s the Vatican was ambivalent about requirements that bishops be required to report abuse to police and civil prosecutors.”

In it, Storero, who died in 2000, writes that the Congregation for the Clergy had concluded that a “mandatory reporting” policy, proposed by a draft 1996 set of policies considered by the Irish bishops, “gives rise to serious reservations of both a moral and a canonical nature.”

That line has fueled charges that the Vatican effectively tied the hands of bishops, preventing them from turning over abuse cases to civil authorities.

American attorney, Jeffrey Anderson (who, having run out of US clients for his lucrative line of suing the Catholic Church, has recently set up shop in Britain) claimed the letter was yet another “smoking gun” indicating a conspiracy to suppress evidence of sexual assaults by Catholic priests. But Allen, who prides himself on his objective view of the Church, says there are three reasons that claim won’t stick.

As usual, there is some background to understand, but in brief:

* The “main concern of the letter is to ensure that when a bishop takes action against an abuser, his edict should stick – suggesting a fairly tough line on abuse, rather than a drive to cover it up.”

* “Second, the letter does not directly forbid bishops from reporting abusers to police and prosecutors. Instead, it communicates the judgment of one Vatican office that mandatory reporting policies raise concerns. It’s not a policy directive, in other words, but an expression of opinion.”

* “Third, the Congregation for the Clergy at the time was under the direction of Colombian Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, whose reservations about bishops reporting their priests to civil authorities have been already well documented.” Some other Vatican officials at the time, including Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, disagreed with Castrillon Hoyos’ approach. Pope John Paul II put Cardinal Ratzinger in charge of the Vatican’s response to the sexual abuse crisis in 2001.

Vatican spokesperson, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, said the letter “correctly insists on the importance that canonical legislation be respected, precisely so that guilty parties not have a basis to appeal.” The “moral and canonical concerns” mentioned in the letter, Lombardi said, concern the sacrament of confession.


Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet