By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
A newly disclosed document reveals that Vatican officials told the bishops of Ireland in 1997 that they had serious reservations about the bishops’ policy of mandatory reporting of priests suspected of child abuse to the police or civil authorities.
The document appears to contradict Vatican claims that church leaders in Rome never sought to control the actions of local bishops in abuse cases, and that the Roman Catholic Church did not impede criminal investigations of child abuse suspects.
Abuse victims in Ireland and the United States quickly proclaimed the document to be a “smoking gun” that would serve as important evidence in lawsuits against the Vatican.
“The Vatican is at the root of this problem,” said Colm O’Gorman, an outspoken victim of abuse in Ireland who is now director of Amnesty International there. “Any suggestion that they have not deliberately and willfully been instructing bishops not to report priests to appropriate civil authorities is now proven to be ridiculous.”
But a spokesman for the Vatican said that the document, while authentic, was further proof that past missteps on handling sexual abuse allegations were corrected by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a top official in the Vatican before he became the current pope, Benedict XVI.
The document, a two-page letter, was first revealed by the Irish broadcaster RTE and obtained by The Associated Press.
The letter was written just after a first wave of scandal over sexual abuse by priests in Irish Catholic schools and other facilities — a scandal so big it brought down the Irish government in 1994.
By 1996, an advisory committee of Irish bishops had drawn up a new policy that included “mandatory reporting” of suspected abusers to civil authorities. The letter, signed by Archbishop Luciano Storero, then the Vatican’s apostolic nuncio — or chief representative — in Ireland, told the Irish bishops that the Vatican had reservations about mandatory reporting for both “moral and canonical” reasons. Archbishop Storero died in 2000.
The letter said that bishops who failed to follow canon law procedures precisely might find that their decisions to defrock abusive clerics would be overturned on appeal by Vatican courts.
“The results could be highly embarrassing and detrimental to those same diocesan authorities,” the letter said.
Jeffrey S. Lena, a lawyer for the Vatican, said in a statement that the letter “has been deeply misunderstood.” He said that its primary purpose was to ensure that bishops used proper canonical procedures to discipline their priests so that the punishments were not overturned on technical grounds. He said the letter was also intended to question the validity of the Irish bishops’ policies, because they were issued merely as a “study document.”
Mr. Lena added, “In stark contrast to news reports, the letter nowhere instructed Irish bishops to disregard civil law reporting requirements.”
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said that the letter represented an approach to sexual abuse cases shaped by a particular Vatican office, the Congregation for the Clergy, before 2001. That year, Pope John Paul II charged the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then led by the future Pope Benedict, with handling such cases.
“It refers to a situation that we’ve now moved beyond,” Father Lombardi said. “That approach has been surpassed, including its ideas about collaborating with civil authorities.”
He played down the idea that the letter was a smoking gun. “It’s not new,” he said. “They’ve known about it in Ireland for some time.”
But Mr. O’Gorman said that the letter was not known until its disclosure on Monday by RTE.
Martin Long, a spokesman for the Irish bishops, said that the revelation that the bishops had faced Vatican disapproval for resolving to report abuse cases to the police as far back as 1996 had prompted an outpouring of supportive e-mails and phone calls.
“The church in Ireland did receive a great number of public calls that reflected the public welcome for the fact that the Irish bishops have been so proactive for so long in working to improve child protection guidelines,” he said.
Mr. Long would not comment on the letter, but he reflected a widespread feeling among church officials that the Irish bishops had borne an unfair share of the recriminations that have been heaped on the church.
He noted that the Irish church had adopted a policy of mandatory reporting of all cases of child sexual abuse to the civil authorities in 1996, and said the policy had been progressively strengthened since then, despite the fact that mandatory reporting in such cases was not required by law in the Irish Republic.
An investigation by the Irish government that took nine years and was released in 2009 found that abuse was “endemic” in church-run schools and orphanages for decades, and that thousands of children were victims.
Pope Benedict sent a pastoral letter to the church in Ireland, accepted the resignations of some bishops and ordered an investigation, known as an “apostolic visitation,” of Irish seminaries and several dioceses. Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, who is in charge of the seminary visitation, announced that he would spend about three weeks from now until early February interviewing seminarians in Rome and in Ireland.
Read the letter here.