Fr Lombardi's response to the Cloyne scandal is legalistic: the Vatican still has serious questions to answer

Never before has an Irish Prime Minister attacked the Vatican so virulently as Taoiseach Enda Kenny did yesterday, when he said: “The Cloyne report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, the narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day.

“The rape and torture of children were downplayed or ‘managed’ to uphold instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and ‘reputation’. Far from listening to evidence of humiliation and betrayal with St Benedict’s ‘ear of the heart’… the Vatican’s reaction was to parse and analyse it with the gimlet eye of a canon lawyer.”

The Taoiseach was moving an all-party motion that “deplores the Vatican’s intervention which contributed to the undermining of the child protection frameworks and guidelines of the Irish state and the Irish bishops”.

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As Ireland is a 90 per cent Catholic country, you might assume that there could be some political risk in so eviscerating the Holy See. Yet Kenny is in fact playing to gallery: his speech merely reflects the ferocious public anger at the Catholic Church.

In the wake of the publication of the Cloyne report last week, senior Irish politicians have called for the expulsion of the papal nuncio to Ireland. The Irish government, meanwhile, has promised to introduce laws requiring priests to break the seal of confession to report confessions of abuse to the civil authorities, with penalties of up to five years’ imprisonment for those who fail to do so.

In all this, some see signs of hysteria, such as the ever-contrary columnist Kevin Myers, who last week sardonically suggested: “As the next step in the current calm and rational debate on child protection, what about this: why don’t we kick a Catholic priest to death every day?” Although Mr Kenny’s speech was sympathetic to “the good priests” – now effectively in the role of “the good German” in the 1930s. Kenny said: “
This Roman clericalism must be devastating for good priests, some of them old, others struggling to keep their humanity – even their sanity – as they work so hard to be the keepers of the Church’s light and goodness within their parishes, communities – the human heart.”

Ireland has seen heartbreaking reports into child abuse before. So what makes the Cloyne report so different? Let the Taoiseach inform you:

“After the Ryan and Murphy Reports Ireland is, perhaps, unshockable when it comes to the abuse of children. But Cloyne has proved to be of a different order. Because for the first time in Ireland, a report into child sexual abuse exposes an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic… as little as three years ago, not three decades ago.”

The charge against the Vatican is quite specific: it relates to the Cloyne report’s finding that the Vatican’s 1997 response to the Irish bishops’ proposed norms for dealing with child abuse cases was “entirely unhelpful”.

In early 1996 the Irish bishops had drawn up the “Framework Document” for dealing with child abuse cases. It required the mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse to the civil authorities in Ireland.

The Cloyne report cites a 1997 letter by the then nuncio to Ireland, Archbishop Luciano Storero, summarising the concerns of the Congregation for Clergy regarding the Framework Document. The letter said:, “In particular, the situation of ‘mandatory reporting’ gives rise to serious reservations of both a moral and a canonical nature,” and referred to the guidelines as “merely a study document”. The Cloyne report found that: “This 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 Irish Church policy.”

Bishop Magee of Cloyne was one such bishop. During his tenure, between 1996 to 2008, only six of 15 reportable complaints of abuse were in fact reported to police by the diocese.

It was this finding that caused the Taoiseach’s comments that “the law of the land should not be stopped by a collar or a crozier” and MP Charlie Flanagan’s call for the expulsion of the papal nuncio, on the basis that “The Vatican has broken the law in Ireland.”

However, did the Vatican’s 1997 letter really amount to a breach of Irish law?

The Irish state awaits a formal Vatican response, but Fr Federico Lombardi SJ, the director of the Holy See Press Office, has issued a statement which he emphasised was not “an official response from the Holy See”.

He argues that “there is absolutely nothing in the [1997] letter that is an invitation to disregard the laws of the country. During the same period, Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, then prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, in a meeting with the Irish bishops stated: ‘The Church, especially through its pastors, should not in any way put an obstacle in the legitimate path of civil justice… while, at the same time, she should move forward with her own canonical procedures.’”

He notes that “the objection the letter referred to regarded the obligation to provide information to civil authorities (‘mandatory reporting’). It did not object to any civil law to that effect, because it did not exist in Ireland at that time…”

This is true: there was no such law at the time. Therefore the accusations that the Vatican’s 1997 letter broke the law in Ireland are probably false – leaving aside the morality or wisdom of the intervention.

Fr Lombardi continues:

“Therefore, the severity of certain criticisms of the Vatican are curious, as if the Holy See was guilty of not having given merit under canon law to norms which a state did not consider necessary to give value under civil law. In attributing grave responsibility to the Holy See for what happened in Ireland, such accusations seem to go far beyond what is suggested in the report itself (which uses a more balanced tone in the attribution of responsibility) and demonstrate little awareness of what the Holy See has actually done over the years to help effectively address the problem.”

Fr Lombardi’s somewhat legalistic defence of the Holy See’s 1997 intervention was met with short shrift from Justice Minister Alan Shatter, who on RTE radio yesterday called the comments “unfortunate and disingenuous”.

Mr Shatter said: “The Cloyne report is very clear in saying that there could be no doubt that the letter that the papal nuncio sent in 1997 greatly strengthened the position of these in Cloyne who didn’t approve of the Church’s Framework Document for the protection of children.”

He also said that the letter made it very clear that the papal nuncio and the Congregation of the Clergy regarded the Framework Document was “a mere study. It cautioned against mandatory reporting. It essentially laid down a marker that where there was an allegation of child sexual abuse, if in compliance with the framework document, a member of the clergy in Ireland reported the matter directly to the civil authorities it clearly indicated that that could be contrary to both moral and canonical law”.

It is perhaps significant that, unlike some of his colleagues, Shatter – himself a formidable lawyer – stopped short of saying that the papal nuncio’s 1997 letter actually broke Irish law.

Even if there is some technical merit in Fr Lombardi’s defensive statement, does it not in itself reflect the “gimlet eye of a canon lawyer”, in Mr Kenny’s memorable phrase?

For the truly substantial questions remain unanswered: did the papal nuncio’s 1997 letter reflect an attitude of greater concern for clergy than for abused children? Did some in the Vatican intentionally hamper those bishops who wanted the truth to be aired?

The motion before the Dáil yesterday asked: did the Vatican’s intervention “contribute to the undermining of the child protection frameworks and guidelines of the Irish state and the Irish bishops”?

The motion was carried.

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