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Vatican office ordered Irish bishops not to report abuse, report shows

January 18, 2011

In 1997, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy directed the Irish bishops not to enforce their new policy calling for mandatory reporting of priests who molested children, an Irish television documentary has reported.

The report “Unspeakable Crimes,” aired on January 17 by the RTE network, contains many inaccuracies and skewed interpretations of Church policies. But it also sheds new light on disagreements within the Vatican on the proper responses to sex-abuse allegations. The documentary also offers strong support for an Irish prelate who has been the target of savage criticism, and puts a new perspective on the efforts of the Irish hierarchy in general.

In 1996, the Irish bishops had devised a new set of policies for handling such allegations, including a mandate to inform law-enforcement officials of all credible reports of abuse. But in January 1997 the apostolic nuncio serving in Ireland, Archbishop Luciano Storero, sent a letter to the Irish bishops, conveying the decision of the Congregation for Clergy that the policies should not be carried out.

In particular, Archbishop Storero— a veteran Vatican diplomat who was nuncio in Ireland from 1995 until his death in 2000—said that the policy of mandatory reporting “gives rise to serious reservations of both a moral and a canonical nature.” The letter from Archbishop Storero, which had previously been kept confidential, was apparently furnished to the RTE investigation by an Irish bishop.

Archbishop Storero indicated that if the Irish bishops followed their policies, and took disciplinary action against abusive priests, those priests might appeal their cases to Rome and find a sympathetic response from the Congregation for Clergy. The papal nuncio said that Congregation would, “at the appropriate time,” provide more complete directions on handling sex-abuse complaints.

Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, who at the time was the prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, met with the Irish bishops a year later. The discussion of sex-abuse policy at that meeting was highly contentious, the RTE program reported, with then-Archbishop (later Cardinal) Desmond Connell of Dublin pounding the table in frustration at the Vatican prelate’s stance.

The RTE program implies that the decisions of Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos represented the official policies of the Vatican. The documentary argues that in the 1990s, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, was similarly anxious to cover up clerical misconduct in his post as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. However, “Unspeakable Crimes” reports, Cardinal Ratzinger eventually changed his views and became the Vatican’s most outspoken champion of tough disciplinary responses to sexual abuse.

Vatican policies took another step forward in 2001, the documentary notes, when Cardinal Ratzinger persuaded Pope John Paul II to institute a new Vatican policy, routing all sex-abuse complaints through his Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That policy brought an end to the problems created by disagreements among Vatican officials and discrepancies in the ways that abuse reports were handled by different dicasteries.

After a somewhat muddled treatment of the Holy Father’s track record during his days at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Unspeakable Crimes” concludes with that Pope Benedict XVI has taken aggressive action to change the attitudes that gave rise to the scandal. Having begun with a blanket indictment of the Vatican, the documentary ends on a somewhat hopeful note.

The RTE program is marred by a number of inaccuracies and/or misinterpretations, both large and small. For instance:

  • The program fails to recognize that in addition to protecting children from abuse, the Church has an obligation to respect the canonical rights of accused priests. In at least some cases, Vatican officials may have had good reason to halt disciplinary proceedings: a possibility that “Unspeakable Crimes” does not even consider.
  • Similarly, the documentary pays no attention to the problems that could be created by mandatory reporting of sex-abuse charges in countries whose regimes are already hostile to the Catholic Church. In many nations the Vatican has a legitimate reason to be concerned about handing a priest over to the workings of the local justice system on the basis on an unproven allegation.
  • Moreover the program does not mention the disciplinary actions that diocesan bishops could take at their own discretion. Bishops could remove priests from active ministry if they chose to do so; they did not need Vatican approval.
  • ”Unspeakable Crimes” revives charges against Cardinal Ratzinger that were raised early in 2010, regarding cases that arose in Wisconsin and California. These charges were persuasively answered months ago, as thorough research would have revealed.
  • The documentary does not report the important revelation, made in December of last year, that Cardinal Ratzinger had been pushing for swifter dismissal of abusive priests as early as 1988. Instead the RTE program makes the unsustainable suggestion that the future Pontiff’s attitudes changed as a result of efforts by the English-speaking bishops.

The program also leaves one fascinating question unanswered. “Unspeakable Crimes” reports that one Irish archbishop threatened to resign when the Vatican blocked his effort to laicize an abusive priest. What was the outcome of that showdown? Who backed down? Regrettably, we are not told.

Despite its flaws, however, the RTE report—and especially the “smoking gun” letter from Archbishop Storero—confirms that influential Vatican officials supported and even encouraged efforts to cover up the sex-abuse problem. The program is devastating in its portrayal of Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, and the available evidence suggests that the portrait is not inaccurate. As late as last year, the Colombian prelate (who stepped down in 2006 from his post at the Congregation for Clergy) was still defending an old letter in which he congratulated a French bishop for withholding evidence of sexual abuse from the police.

Cardinal Angelo Sodano also comes in for pointed criticism. The RTE documentary strongly implies what other Vatican-watchers have charged: that it was the former Secretary of State (who remains Dean of the College of Cardinals) who blocked Cardinal Ratzinger’s early efforts to expose the misconduct of Father Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ.

On the other hand Cardinal Desmond Connell, the retired Archbishop of Dublin, comes off quite well in the RTE investigation. Cardinal Connell was under heavy criticism when he retired in 2004 at the age of 78, and the criticism grew even more intense thereafter when he fought efforts to release archdiocesan documents. But the documentary shows that then-Archbishop Connell took the lead in arranging canonical trials for priests who were charged with abuse, and it was Archbishop Connell who pounded the table in protest over the Vatican’s opposition to that effort.

In fact, “Unspeakable Crimes” reflects favorably on the Irish bishops who approved a new sex-abuse policy in 1996. The documentary never reveals the details of that policy, nor explains the reasons for the Vatican’s disapproval, apart from the question of mandatory reporting. But the record shows that in 1996, even before the full explosion of the sex-abuse scandal in the US, and long before the later explosion in Ireland, the Irish bishops were ready to take some effective action.

The opposition to that disciplinary action reached into the Roman Curia; that much is now undeniable. So “Unspeakable Crimes” raises a vitally important question: Has Pope Benedict been successful—or will he eventually succeed—in uprooting the attitudes that caused Vatican officials to aggravate this ruinous scandal?


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