The Smoking Gun of Catholic Culpability

The steady drip, drip, drip of documents showing the Vatican’s complicity in a worldwide child-rape scandal is ongoing. And the most recent drop to fall was a huge one:

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.

The actual letter is available as a PDF file, so you can see for yourself. A short summary of the matter is that, in the early 1990s, revelations about sex predators among the Catholic clergy erupted into a huge scandal in Ireland. A committee of Irish bishops responded by drawing up a policy that made it mandatory for priests to report suspected child molesters to civil authorities, upon which Storero, essentially the Vatican’s ambassador to Ireland, wrote the following:

The Congregation wishes to emphasize the need for this document [i.e., the mandatory reporting policy] to conform to the canonical norms presently in force [implying that it didn't do so in its original form].

The text, however, contains “procedures and dispositions which appear contrary to canonical discipline and which, if applied, could invalidate the acts of the same Bishops who are attempting to put a stop to these problems. If such procedures were to be followed by the Bishops and there were cases of eventual hierarchical recourse lodged at the Holy See, the results could be highly embarrassing and detrimental to those same Diocesan authorities.

In particular, the situation of ‘mandatory reporting’ gives rise to serious reservations of both a moral and a canonical nature”.

To translate the diplomatic jargon, the Vatican was saying that if the Irish bishops adopted a mandatory-reporting policy, it would violate canon law and the accused priest could appeal to Rome to overturn any sanctions against him – that is, any church sanctions, such as defrocking or excommunication. The Vatican clearly considered this a far more important matter than the question of whether that priest should be tried in a criminal court. Since that outcome would be “highly embarrassing” to the bishops (and that potential embarrassment, of course, outweighs ensuring that child molesters are tried and punished by the law), the letter was implicitly urging them not to adopt this policy.

Unsurprisingly, apologists for the papacy have already gone into damage-control mode:

Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi said the letter had been misinterpreted: “It must be pointed out that the letter in no way indicates that the law of the land should not be adhered to.

…Fr Lombardi argued that the “reservations” about “mandatory reporting” referred to in the letter concerned the impact that such reporting might have on any subsequent canonical proceeding.

First off, let me note that this statement confirms my argument above: the Vatican, by its own admission, was more concerned about the effect of this policy on internal church proceedings than it was about its effect on the police’s ability to arrest and punish child molesters. They say this as if it were a defense, rather than a confirmation of the point at issue, which is that the church puts obedience to its own internal policies above the civil law and the well-being of children.

And no, the letter doesn’t explicitly command the bishops, “Obstruct justice.” It didn’t have to. By calling the mandatory reporting policy “contrary to canonical discipline” and saying that it gives rise to “serious reservations” in Rome, it said all that had to be said. The Vatican knew perfectly well that their disapproval would quash the policy and discourage bishops from going to the police – which it did, with predictably disastrous results:

Yet as a result of the 1997 letter, most Irish dioceses never implemented the 1996 commitment to report all suspected abuse cases to police, according to the conclusions of the government-mandated investigation into the Dublin Archdiocese published in 2009.

“This in fact never took place because of the response of Rome,” the commission said in its report…

That eight-year inquiry interviewed two senior Dublin Archdiocese canon lawyers involved in handling abuse complaints. They were quoted as saying the letter discouraged bishops from pursuing their 1996 initiative for fear of being overruled by Rome, as had already happened in one notorious case of a serial pedophile [this is a reference to the case of Tony Walsh, described in this article —Ebonmuse].

Given how many new revelations there have been in the ever-growing story of Catholic sex abuse, I wouldn’t bet that this is the last we’ll hear of this matter. There may well be other letters from the Vatican, even more explicit in their orders to keep predator priests under wraps, that haven’t come to light. Keep watching the headlines: the day may come, and sooner than we expect, when the full depths of the church’s complicity will be exposed.

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Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.