VATICAN CITY (AP) ― The Vatican has vigorously rejected accusations it had sabotaged efforts by Irish bishops to report priests who sexually abused children to police and charged that the Irish prime minister had made an “unfounded” attack against the Holy See.
The Vatican issued a 24-page response on Saturday to the Irish government after Prime Minister Enda Kenny and the Irish parliament publicly denounced the Vatican following the publication in July of a government-mandated investigation into priestly sex abuse in the diocese of Cloyne in southern Ireland.
The report found that the Vatican had undermined attempts by Irish bishops to protect children by warning that their policy requiring abuse to be reported to police might violate church law.
The Cloyne report, and Kenny’s unprecedented dressing down of the Holy See that followed, prompted cheers from Irish Catholics who have grown increasingly disgusted by the colossal scale of priestly sexual abuse and cover-up in Ireland and the Vatican’s consistent claim that it bore no blame.
The diplomatic standoff was particularly acute given that Ireland has long been staunchly Roman Catholic, Kenny himself is a practicing Catholic, and the church has long enjoyed a privileged place in society.
The abuse scandal has taken its toll, however, and Kenny’s speech was a remarkable indication of just how deep the wounds are.
It also came as the Vatican is fighting on multiple legal fronts in the U.S. to defend itself against lawsuits alleging it is liable for abusive priests. Just last month, the Holy See was forced to turn over internal personnel files of an abusive priest to lawyers representing a victim in Oregon.
The Vatican was patently stunned by Kenny’s July 20 speech and recalled its ambassador. In the seven weeks since, it drafted a detailed response, hoping to set the record straight and assure Ireland’s abuse-weary faithful that it is serious about cracking down on predator priests.
Irish leaders, however, were not convinced. Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore said he remained certain that the Vatican had exacerbated the abuse crisis and criticized the Holy See for offering an overly “legalistic” justification of its actions in dealing with priests who rape and molest children.
The Cloyne document was the fourth report since 2005 to document abuse in the Irish church.
But it was the first to squarely find the Vatican culpable in promoting the culture of secrecy and cover-up that kept abusers in ministry and able to prey on more children.
The Cloyne report based much of its accusations against the Holy See on a 1997 letter from the Vatican’s ambassador to Ireland to the country’s bishops expressing “serious reservations” about their policy requiring bishops to report abusers to police.
A committee of Irish bishops had adopted the policy in 1996 under mounting public pressure as the first cover-ups came to light, a year after a former altar boy became the first abuse victim in Ireland to go public with a lawsuit against the church.
The Cloyne report charged that the Vatican’s 1997 letter “effectively gave individual Irish bishops the freedom to ignore the procedures which they had agreed and gave comfort and support to those who ... dissented from the stated official church policy.”
The Vatican concurred that, taken out of context, the 1997 letter could give rise to “understandable criticism.” But it said the letter had been misinterpreted, that the Cloyne report’s conclusions were “inaccurate” and that Kenny’s denunciation was “unfounded.”
The Vatican noted that at the time, in the mid-1990s, there was no law in Ireland requiring professionals to report suspected abuse to police and that the issue was a matter of intense political debate. In fact, Ireland has never had a law explicitly making the failure to report suspected child abuse a crime, but is planning to draft one now in the wake of the Cloyne report.
“Given that the Irish government of the day decided not to legislate on the matter, it is difficult to see how (the Vatican’s) letter to the Irish bishops, which was issued subsequently, could possibly be construed as having somehow subverted Irish law or undermined the Irish state in its efforts to deal with the problem in question,” the Vatican said.
The response said the Vatican’s concerns about mandatory reporting weren’t designed to thwart police investigations, but were aimed at ensuring that church law was meticulously followed to prevent abusive priests from being able to overturn any church sanctions on appeal.