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Smoking gun? No. But damaging? Yes.

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 19, 2011

Did an Irish television documentary produce a “smoking gun,” proving that the Vatican had a worldwide policy encouraging bishops to conceal sexual abuse by priests? No.

But did the documentary show damaging evidence that some Vatican officials nourished a culture of secrecy that fed the abuse scandal? Yes.

For nearly 20 years now, I have been calling attention to an odd and perverse attitude within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, which encourages prelates to believe that they are serving “the good of the Church” when they sweep serious problems under the rug. That attitude contributed mightily to the sex-abuse scandal, as I demonstrated in The Faithful Departed. And that attitude, I am sorry to say, could be found within the Vatican as well as in American dioceses. 

Today the Vatican press spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, complained that the RTE television report that aired on January 17 had “deeply misunderstood” a 1997 letter from the papal nuncio in Ireland. The Vatican was not trying to protect abusive priests, he said. Rather, the caution from the Vatican was intended to ensure that the Irish bishops would respect proper canonical procedures, “precisely so that guilty parties not have a basis to appeal.”

Two excellent American commentators have pointed out the many flaws in the Irish documentary: John Allen for the National Catholic Reporter and Jimmy Akin for the National Catholic Register. Ordinarily the Reporter and the Register are on the opposite sides of controversial topics, so when their reports jibe, their agreement carries more than the usual force. What’s more, Allen and Akin make a number of important points. 

  • The Congregation for Clergy, the ultimate source of the cautions expressed in the “smoking gun” letter, is just one office in the Roman Curia, not the final arbiter of worldwide policies. At the time in question another Vatican office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was also handling sex-abuse complaints, and taking a harder line. There was no single unified Vatican policy until 2001. 
  • The Vatican never told Irish priests to cover up abuse, nor did the 1997 letter suggest that they should disobey the country’s legal requirements for reporting criminal activity. The Vatican’s reservations centered on a proposal to report all accusations of abuse—even those that were unsubstantiated.
  • The papal nuncio warned Irish bishops that they must respect the Code of Canon Law, which includes “due process” rights for accused clerics. If those rights were not protected, the accused priests would have grounds for a successful appeal. Thus the Vatican was reminding the Irish hierarchy about the importance of proper legal procedures within the Church.
  • An ominous reference to “moral and canonical concerns” about mandatory reporting was a reference to the confessional seal, Father Lombardi said. The papal nuncio was not suggesting any principled objection to reporting other evidence of crimes. 

These are all important points, exposing serious flaws in the RTE presentation. Nevertheless, the documentary does furnish evidence that when the Irish bishops sought to make an aggressive disciplinary effort to root out predator-priests, they encountered resistance rather than support from some Vatican officials.

The RTE program includes interviews with Irish bishops, who leave no doubt that when they sat in a meeting with Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos—then the prefect of the Congregation for Clergy—they saw him as an opponent of their plans. We already know that Cardinal Castrillon applauded efforts to protect abusive priests from prosecution. At the height of the American sex-abuse scandal he told reporters that the problem had been exaggerated by the media; as late as last year he was defending a letter in which he congratulated a French bishop for hiding a priest from prosecution. When Irish bishops report that he opposed their efforts to uproot the scandal, we have every reason to believe them.

Nor was Cardinal Castrillon alone. The Irish documentary also cites the evidence—circumstantial but persuasive—that the former Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, was instrumental in protecting the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Father Marcial Maciel, from investigation on sex-abuse charges. The Secretary of State, who operates in effect as the Vatican's prime minister, exercises enormous control over the Roman Curia. His opposition would be nearly fatal to any plan for institutional reform. 

So when diocesan bishops went to Rome, looking for help to expose the deadly corruption within the Church, they sometimes found resistance from powerful Vatican officials. And when they sought help to cover up that corruption, they sometimes found it. This does not mean that bishops could not find allies in pursuing reform; the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under then-Cardinal Ratzinger, was anxious to help. Still, the deadly inclination to cover up evidence of wrongdoing—the attitude that magnified the impact of the sex-abuse scandal—was evident even within the walls of the Vatican.

In order to lay this scandal finally to rest, the Church must change those destructive attitudes within the hierarchy. The RTE program reports, accurately, that Pope Benedict XVI has emerged as a powerful force for just such a reform. But he will be successful only if Church leaders face the problem squarely, and resist the old ingrained temptation to deny the existence of the problem. 

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Jan. 22, 2011 5:46 AM ET USA

    Before we go about chastising the Vatican, it'd be wise to remember this: Most media outlets and most law enforcement agencies have moderate to severe secular efforts for decades. They aren't always interested in truth, integrity, and "getting it right" the first time. Perhaps the approach these officials took wasn't great, but given the situation, I'm not convinced the rest of us would've done so very differently every time.