A Vatican smoking gun?

Irish broadcaster RTE and the Associated Press broke news this week regarding a two-page 1997 letter from the Vatican’s diplomat in Ireland at the time, Archbishop Luciano Storero. From there, the story traveled quickly. The letter communicates the opinion of the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy about a set of proposed Irish policies for how to deal with priestly sexual abuse.

While a careful read of the letter might yield any number of responses, the media coverage has missed the mark. By no means is this the only example, but let’s just look at the New York Times piece “Vatican Warned Bishops Not to Report Child Abuse.” We’ll discuss the inaccurate headline in a moment, but first the lede:

A newly disclosed document reveals that Vatican officials instructed the bishops of Ireland in 1997 that they must not adopt a policy of reporting priests suspected of child abuse to the police or civil authorities.

The document appears to contradict Vatican claims that the hierarchy in Rome never determined the actions of local bishops in abuse cases, and that the church did not impede criminal investigations of accused child abusers.

Is this true?

The headline is, alas, completely inaccurate. Nowhere in the letter did the Vatican warn bishops not to report child abuse. Note there’s a difference between the headline and the first paragraph. The policy in question proposed mandatory reporting for any claim of abuse, substantiated or otherwise. Storero said that the congregation had serious concerns about that policy.

Even so, that was not the main point of the brief letter. The main point was that the Irish bishops needed to make sure that their policy was in line with canon law lest convictions get overturned on technicalities. I’ll let John Allen at the National Catholic Reporter explain his take on why this letter — whatever else you might say about it — is not how it’s being portrayed by some advocates:

First, the letter warns the Irish bishops that if they were to adopt policies which violate the church’s Code of Canon Law, cases in which they remove abusers from the priesthood could be overturned on procedural grounds. Were that to happen, the letter says, “the results could be highly embarrassing and detrimental.”

In other words, a main concern of the letter is to ensure that when a bishop takes action against an abuser, his edict should stick — suggesting a fairly tough line on abuse, rather than a drive to cover it up.

Second, the letter does not directly forbid bishops from reporting abusers to police and prosecutors. Instead, it communicates the judgment of one Vatican office that mandatory reporting policies raise concerns. It’s not a policy directive, in other words, but an expression of opinion.

So the headline is just completely in error and the language throughout the story also suffers from this misunderstanding, it seems. The opinion of one Vatican official that mandatory reporting policies raise concerns is different than the Vatican forbidding or dictating to the bishops in anything.

Here’s how the Times characterizes some of this:

It said that for both “moral and canonical” reasons, the bishops must handle all accusations through internal church channels. Bishops who disobeyed, the letter said, may face repercussions when their abuse cases were heard in Rome.

“The results could be highly embarrassing and detrimental to those same Diocesan authorities,” the letter said.

Just . . . no. In addition to making this seem like the letter is saying that all claims of sexual abuse must be handled exclusively in church channels, the language throughout is imprecise. The only “repercussions” mentioned in the letter are that failure to adhere to canonical law could mean a bishop’s discipline of a priest could be overturned. There’s nothing about obeying anything other than canon law — and that for the purpose of carrying out justice against perpetrators of crimes. It doesn’t quite match with the “smoking gun” rhetoric employed in many journalistic write-ups of the piece, but that’s what the letter says. (Interested readers might also check out Jimmy Akin’s thorough take on this over at the National Catholic Register.)

And as for the “moral and canonical” bit, the actual text from the letter is:

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

Immediately this suggests something like problems with respecting the seal of the confessional, right? The letter provides no details, but that’s what immediately comes to mind when you think of how sexual abuse comes to light. Or there are many cases when abuse is reported on condition of anonymity. Now, perhaps a church still might want to adopt a mandatory reporting policy for a certain level of substantiation — but these are concerns that should be explained rather than distorted.

Allen gives a third reason for why he believes the “smoking gun” angle taken by reporters is overblown. He basically says it can’t be a smoking gun because the Congregation for Clergy at that time was under the direction of Colombian Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos and his dislike of reporting priests to civil authorities has been well documented. And while this won’t jive with the Times oft-discussed attempts to make Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (aka Pope Benedict XVI) the bad guy in all of this, Hoyos and Ratzinger were at opposing sides on how to handle sex abuse cases. Ratzinger eventually won out. Or, as Allen puts it:

In that light, the 1997 letter seems less a statement of Vatican policy than an expression of what would eventually be the losing side in an internal Vatican power struggle.

Yes, all of this requires some complex understanding — from Vatican power struggles to the importance of the confessional seal — but it’s certainly not an insurmountable barrier.

Addendum: After writing this, I just noted that the online version of the Times story has been updated. The headline has been changed to “Vatican Letter Warned Bishops on Abuse Policy.” That is a wonderful change to an accurate headline.

The first part of the lede has also been changed, also for the better. It now says that the document reveals that Vatican officials spoke of their serious reservations about mandatory reporting. The new version also removes that confusing language about abuse cases being handled exclusively in church courts and explains that the “moral and canonical” concerns deal with the mandatory reporting. In fact, this updated version is just much better at explaining all of these details. If you want to see the older version of the story, I found it here.

Kudos to the New York Times for updating the story to be more accurate and informative. And if you’re looking for existing examples of some of the mistakes noted above, it looks like the Associated Press is the outlet that really got the inaccuracy ball rolling here in this report on the letter and its meaning.

Image via Flickr stream of Michele Hubacek aka the Choctopus.

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  • Kyle

    Mollie, did they merely altar the story as it appears online or did they they actually run a correction to remedy the manifest falsehood that they previously published?

  • Kyle

    Grrr. “Alter.”

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    I don’t believe there was a correction. I’m also unsure what ran in print and how long the previous version was up before it was updated.

  • SB

    This is going to make me sound both young and lazy (and is not actually on topic here), but have you all considered adding common “sharing” buttons to articles (for Facebook, Twitter, etc.)? I frequently find myself wanting to pass on a GR article, and that would be a convenient tool with which to do so.

  • Kyle

    I’m also unsure what ran in print and how long the previous version was up before it was updated.

    All of which might be the sort of thing one would expect the New York Times to be transparent about on an error that enormous.

    But then again, I don’t think they have ever clarified their reporting on the Murphy case that allegedly relied on a faulty Internet-search-engine-produced translation of a key document either.

  • Aline Frybarger

    Though the letter does not SAY don’t report, it certainly is IMPLICIT that they better not report. Why is that the bishops of Ireland did not report?????? The bishops obeyed the SPIRIT of that letter: DON’T GO THE POLICE. The ‘explanation’ the vatican has come up with today about the letter is that the priest might have a technicality not to be punsihsed. But the church was not punishing priests. Catholics are not stupid.

  • Kyle

    Aline: This particular Catholic is smart enough to say “quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur.”

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    In this particular case, the letter doesn’t deal with reporting of individual cases but, rather, a policy of mandatory reporting for all alleged cases of sexual abuse, mandatory or not.

    So journalists have to provide context (such as the context about this being part of a larger Vatican battle about how to handle abuse cases) but they can’t say the letter says things it does not.

  • Joe

    I would agree with the Vatican IF they had not added the short paragraph about how there were serious questions regarding mandatory reporting. With regards to mandatory reporting there was no mention of the need to protect what is said in confession. And the letter is not inconsistent with what others in the Vatican were saying then (and many still saying) regarding the need for bishops to protect priests. Rome needs to recognize that what people are mad about is not that there are perverts but that the Church hid and supported these rapists time and time again. The sooner Rome deals with the issue of the role of the Church leadership the sooner they will be able to get it behind them.

  • http://contracts jh

    “And the letter is not inconsistent with what others in the Vatican were saying then (and many still saying) regarding the need for bishops to protect priests.”

    Some yes some no and for others the importance of Due Process. Again the Holy See is a mighty big place. That said the interesting and important Due Process concerns will not I expect be examined in an objective manner without being framed as having a sinster taint. T

    his can be safely done because the Catholic and non Catholic Laity that work for the church know they will not be held to the same standard. Sort of a unspoken agreement. Easier just to focus on those wierd celibates.

  • Jerry

    Most of the critique is fine. But one comment John Allen made rubbed me the wrong way:

    It’s not a policy directive, in other words, but an expression of opinion.

    I find that part of the critique of the news story to miss the mark. Before I retired, if my boss expressed an opinion about how I should handle a situation, I took it as a directive to do what he or she said unless I had a strong counter-argument. If my wife expresses an opinion, saying something like “I was thinking that it might be a good idea to consider painting the kitchen green. What do you think?”, I take it as a strong statement of her opinion and one that I should accept unless I felt really strongly about green kitchens. And even then I would likely be in real trouble unless I could find a color she liked better.

    They would have been better to have accepted that the letter was poorly worded and could lead people to make the wrong assumption.

  • Julia

    I have yet to see any discussion of how the differences between English Common Law and European Civil Law exacerbate the misunderstandings and mutual incomprehensibility of the legal systems involved.

    Here’s an overlooked statement in the letter:

    Since the policies on sexual abuse in the English speaking world exhibit many of the same characteristics and procedures, the Congregation is involved in a global study of them.

    Source: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/europe/the-1997-letter-vatican-message-sent-to-irish-church/article1874546/

    Whatever people think of Cardinal Burke, having an American at the top level of the Vatican court who is used to the English-style American legal system is a plus. Hopefully he can explain our expectations to the Curia and vice versa – or at least I hope that will help. Our legal system is widely viewed in Europe as mystifying and out of control.

    I’d like to see the next Pope be an American, a Canadian, a Brit, an Aussie or even an Irishman – to totally revamp Canon Law so that it is clear what is expected. Ironically it was an attempt in the 1980s Canon Law revisions to introduce safeguards for the accused, as in America, that made the laicization of priests more difficult. It was American bishops who pushed for those protections against heavy-handedness in Rome and then found those protections significantly hampered them in getting rid of bad priests.

  • Julia

    The other thing unclear in news accounts is the implication that bishops are trying to substitute canon law for that of the state. No matter what happens in the criminal law system, the church still has to deal with and resolve issues relating to the obligations it took on when the man was ordained and how best to keep people safe from a priest who was not convicted by the state but is probably a danger.

    Most organizations of any size have procedures for firing employees and procedures for preliminary investigations before turning matters over the the police.

    Schools have elaborate handbooks of policies that they must follow that set forth the rights of students and teachers. Why is it so strange that a church might also have a policy handbook (Canon Law). Students have rights to a hearing before being expelled or disciplined; teachers also have due-process rights before they are fired or disciplined. Most larger employers also have such procedural handbooks. Failure to follow established procedures can give an aggrieved student or teacher a way to appeal or sue successfully – just as the Irish letter is informing the bishops in Ireland.

    When matters are very obvious and there’s much more than suspicion, more direct action is appropriate. That’s the kind of short-cut that was established in 2002, with the help of Cardinal Ratzinger, for obvious cases relating to canon law issues. An example in the legal profession: the conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude, even in a different state, is enough to yank your state law license.

    Here would be a source explaining Anglican Canon Law.


    Lutheran Constitutions.

    There should be a blog called: Get Religious Law?

  • JWB

    The Irish policy proposal as to which the letter expressed reservations can be found here: http://www.catholicbishops.ie/images/docs/csaframework.pdf. It is explicit (footnote 5 on p. 22) that the contemplated mandatory reporting requirement would not apply to any information learned subject to the seal of the confessional (which is described as “of course, inviolable”). So whatever the reservations were, that wasn’t it, and I fear the normally careful Mollie may have been tempted to the same sort of speculation she rightly decries in other journalists. On the other hand, how hard would it have been for internet versions of the news stories to link not only to the letter but to the document the letter responded to which necessarily provided the context?

  • Julia

    Jerry said:

    Before I retired, if my boss expressed an opinion about how I should handle a situation, I took it as a directive to do what he or she said unless I had a strong counter-argument.

    First, you are assuming that the nuncio and/or the head of a Congregation in the Curia is the Irish bishops’ boss. It doesn’t work like that.

    Second, if you read the letter, you can see that the document the Irish bishops submitted for review was a work in progress and they were looking for comments.

    Third, the nuncio tells the bishops that the Cardinal indicated the Curia was in the middle of studying English style law to determine which was the best way to proceed. So the Cardinal wasn’t even giving his final opinion, and the letter doesn’t say don’t report anything.

    Read the letter again:

    Here’s the document submitted by the Irish bishops:

    Note: on pg 22 it calls for mandatory reporting where there is “knowledge or suspicion” of sex abuse. No mention of assessing credibility or what to do about obviously wild accusations, etc. On pg 23 it says never to respect even an adult victim’s request for confidentiality.

    American rules approved later include review boards:



    The UK also has approved child protection rules:

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    I think there is some question as to whether that was the policy to which the Vatican official was responding. In other words, I think that the Irish bishops may have updated the policy to reflect the concerns laid out in the letter.

    Also, for what it’s worth, the Vatican’s press office did say yesterday that the confessional seal concerns were what was referenced in that letter.

    Also worth remembering that the side that opposed mandatory reporting lost. That’s the U.S. policy now and it met with Vatican approval, obvs.

  • JWB

    Since the author of the letter has been deceased for over a decade, perhaps no one knows exactly what he was thinking and everyone is trying to make an educated guess from context, including the Vatican PR people, who can’t get away with saying “no comment” or “it will take us a few weeks to figure out with confidence what the heck was really going on in 1997.” The document I and Julia linked to is dated on its face 1995, with a 1996 copyright notice, prior to the 1997 date of the nuncio’s letter. If the Irish bishops stuck a subsequent amended version up on their website without making it clear they were doing so (which I accept is not beyond the realm of possibility), that seems like it would have been an unfortunate and misleading thing to have done. Indeed, you’d think they would have wanted to emphasize that this is a revised version of our earlier proposal which takes into account input from the nuncio. But who knows.

  • Martha

    It’s nice that they made corrections, but how many people will read the corrected piece and how many will be quoting the headlines from the first one as evidence that “the Vatican covers up abuse”? Remember Professor Dawkins and his suggestion about arresting the Pope as an accessory to child abuse before the Papal Visit to Britain?

    Regarding the possibility of problems due to mandatory reporting, I imagine one difficulty would be establishing the validity of claims. Anyone could make a complaint about a priest or other religious but how do you ensure justice to both sides?

    As an example from my very own home town, here’s a link to the Nora Wall case:


    (Disclosure of interest: she was my Third Class teacher when I was in primary school).

    And there was a case several years back now when a guy was up in court for attemtping to extort money, amongst other offences, from a local priest; he allegedly claimed that unless he got this sum, he’d go to the police and allege that the priest had abused him (he needed the money to pay off drug debts).

    So yes, there are false allegations. A mandatory reporting scheme does not, or should not, mean an automatic assumption of guilt without further need of proof, but too often people do think that.

  • John Pack Lambert

    One interesting thing is this release was timed to coincide with the apparance of the Apostolic Visitiation committee in Ireland. It seems that there are some media forces who are trying to obscure the current attempts at reform by the Catholic Church by harping on things done last century and ignoring things being done now.

  • John Pack Lambert

    In the AP version of an article trying to portray Vatican attempts to point out the truth as merely “PR work” published by the Deseret News article it was mentioned that the Catholic Sex-abuse scandal broke in 2002.

    The problem is not only are there multiple cases of American newspapers reporting on the cases back into the 1980s, and definantly constant litigation in the 1990s, but the opening paragraph of this letter shows that this is an issue that the Congregation for the Clergy as well as the bishops of Ireland were deliberating on in 1996-1997. Cometo think of it Sinead O’Connor or whatever her name was engaged in a vile attack on the Pope supposedly over the abuse in Ireland I want to say in 1987, but well before 1995. This issue broke long before 2002, although it reached the point of total media saturation in that year.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The level of substantiation is an issue the media seems to ignore. With the exception of the recent statement by a lawyer involved in these cases that many of the cases are false and that the excruciating detail in reports form a perfect way for copy-cat accusations to come about the issue remains complexed.

    Thinking about it, I think it was a recent article on a lawyer in Boston releasing the names of accused priests and monks that was where it was stated the clergy sex abuse crisis broke in 2002. One question that the story there did not even explore is, what is the legal consequence of a lawyer violating the terms of a settlemet in a law suit, especially if it is an out of court settlement. If the out of court settlement says that the specific accusations against a priest will not be publicized as part of the agreement to pay without going to court, and te lawyer who says he will do so breaks his agreement, is there any way he can be punished for contempt of court? The fact that all the Boston archdiocese priests involved were dead even when the accusations were first brought out was conviently buried at the bottom of the AP article. This seems the biggest issue. The dead have no way to defend themselves, and their is no way that they are going to molest people, except maybe in Chicago. Since the dead vote there, maybe they do other things to.

  • John Pack Lambert

    If any suspicion forces reporting, than that would seem to mandate reporting of information gained in a confession. At a minimum the policiies quoted by Akin do not make a clear statement on that matter.

    There is another issue here that Akin alludes to and the Times ignores. The guidelines of the Irish Church had not been approved. The Congregation on the Clergy was stating their views. If there was a debate in the Michigan state house last year on a mandatory reporting law, and the Michigan Eduaction Association (MEA) expressed concerns on how it would hurt innocent teachers, would the NYT say they were acting to control the senate. Considering that at that point a majority of the state house members had been elected with endorsement and donations of the MEA, how would that play out?

    Another factor is one of the main issues in US courts is how much does the Vatican control the actions of bishops. In the first NYT version there was a clear attempt to push the view the Vatican forces its will on its subordinates. In the revised version, and definately in the assesment of Akin and others the view of a much less centralized organization is coming through.

  • Carlos

    Why did the letter have strictly confidential written on it?


  • Passing By

    It’s interesting how “confidential”, “private”, and “secret” can be used to convey valor or perfidy, whichever suits the writer’s intentions. The holder of confidential records can be the good guy or the bad guy, depending on one’s views. Our local paper ran a series on the dioceses’ “secret archives”, a compendium of articles is found here. As I remember it, the “secret archives” are also known as “personnel files” and generally confidential except by a court order, which the local papers obtained.

  • Julia

    Passing By:

    Very important point you are making.

    I’ve had a lot of people tell me that the Vatican has all these secret documents that they are keeping people from seeing.

    I tell them it’s a lot like the Library of Congress or special collections in university libraries. Interested scholars must show their credentials and look at the materials on site. Sometimes a written request must be made ahead of time. The US government still has classified documents from World War II that only few people can see. Jackie Kennedy made some recorded memories of her life that are not to be released for a certain number of years after her death – presumably until most of the people mentioned will have passed.

    The translation of Latin into words like “secret” often adds a sense in English that was not there in the original Latin, even if the Latin “secretum” looks very close to “secret”. Even the Vatican website uses “secret archives”, probably because people are used to it. Maybe “classified” or “restricted” would better give the meaning.

    The “Archivum Secretum Apostolicum Vaticanum” has many documents on line.

    And info in English for scholars on how to get in and see its documents or order DVDs of scanned documents.

    From the website’s Preamble:

    The oldest document dates back to the end of the VIII Century, while the archives have an almost uninterrupted documentation starting from 1198.
    The Secret Vatican Archives are above all and primarily used by the Pope and his Curia, that is the Holy See (Motuproprio by Leo XIII, 10th May 1884). In 1881, thanks to the generosity of Pope Leo XIII, the Archives were opened to be freely consulted by scholars, thus becoming the most important centre of historical research in the world.

    Source: http://asv.vatican.va/en/doc/1_doc.htm