Dispatches > News

Dead letter

No seal on Vatican coverup

Issue: "Between Hell and Hope," Feb. 12, 2011

Victims' advocates are calling a 1997 letter from the Vatican a "smoking gun" that proves the Vatican discouraged Irish bishops from reporting sex abuse allegations to law enforcement. The letter, signed by the papal nuncio to Ireland and responding to a plan that would require church leaders to report sex abuse allegations, cautions Ireland's bishops that "mandatory reporting" of sex crimes causes "serious reservations of both a moral and a canonical nature." The Vatican has defended the letter, saying that it only meant to ensure that the bishops followed canonical law so that guilty priests could not appeal their punishments based on technical errors. Vatican spokesperson Federico Lombardi said that the moral and canonical concerns are a reference to the confessional seal, meaning the promise to keep all confessions-including those of a fellow priest-­confidential. David Clohessy, executive director for Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests, said the Vatican's explanation of the letter matters less than what happened afterward: "If Irish bishops interpreted the letter as approval of mandatory reporting, we would have seen a spike in bishops turning over these cases to police. There's no evidence of that." In fact, a government investigation found that the bishops abandoned their plan because of Rome's response. Lombardi defended the letter by saying it was written before 2001 when the church developed a unified plan for dealing with sex abuse allegations. Clohessy noted that the church issued a statement last year telling churches to report allegations, but the statement was non-binding and the church still provides no punishment for leaders who fail to report allegations: "You don't cut through and reverse decades of secrecy and recklessness with mere words."

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