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Vatican official instructed US bishop to withhold files of troubled priest

February 07, 2011

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In 1984, the prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy wrote to an American bishop, instructing him not to hand over personnel files in the case of a priest who had been accused of misconduct.

The letter is being cited as new evidence that the Vatican had a policy of encouraging bishops to withhold evidence of priestly misconduct. In January, the release of a 1997 letter to Irish bishops from the apostolic nuncio in Dublin prompted similar outcries.

The letter, from Cardinal Silvio Oddi to Bishop Manuel Moreno of Tucson, Arizona, has been made public on the BishopAccountability web site. The correspondence involved the case of a Tucson priest whose name has been redacted from the correspondence because, BishopAccountability explains, his misconduct involved consensual activity with a female adult (as well as other misbehavior) rather than abuse of a child.

In response to Bishop Moreno’s question whether the diocese should turn over the priest’s personnel files, Cardinal Oddi replies that “under no condition whatever ought the after-mentioned files be surrendered to any lawyer or judge whatsoever.”

After giving that unequivocal instruction, Cardinal Oddi suggested that the Tucson diocese should anticipate demands for release of the files, and should “begin preparing whatever resistance to this request may be necessary.” The cardinal expresses confidence that American courts would uphold the Church’s position.

While the message from Cardinal Oddi is unmistakably clear, the letter does not indicate whether or not the priest in question could face criminal charges, nor is there any indication that he would be a threat to public safety. Thus it is difficult to judge, from the letter alone, whether Cardinal Oddi was justified in thinking that the US legal system would have favored the bishop in this case.

However, the newly disclosed letter adds to the mounting evidence that many Vatican officials were adamant in their belief that bishops should not allow such disclosure. “The files of a bishop concerning his priests are altogether private; their forced acquisition by civil authority would be an intolerable attack upon the free exercise of religion in the United States,” Cardinal Oddi explains.

During the sex-abuse scandal that reached its zenith in the US about 18 years later, dozens of American bishops cited the same argument of confidentiality that Cardinal Oddi raised in his letter, resisting demands to open their personnel files. However, when the courts ordered release of those files, the US bishops complied.

The two prelates involved in the 1984 letter are now deceased. Cardinal Silvio Oddi, who was prefect of the Congregation for Clergy from 1979 to 1984, died in 2001 at the age of 90. Bishop Manuel Moreno, who resigned his post in Tucson in 2003 at the age of 72, died in 2006.


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