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Vatican did not tell Irish bishops to cover up abuse, says spokesman

By on Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Fr Lombardi: the Vatican does not have a 'universal position on mandatory reporting' because laws are so different from country to country (Photo: CNS)

Fr Lombardi: the Vatican does not have a 'universal position on mandatory reporting' because laws are so different from country to country (Photo: CNS)

The Vatican has downplayed a 1997 letter to Irish bishops about handling cases of clerical sex abuse, saying the letter did not tell bishops to keep the cases secret from the police.

Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said the letter aimed at ensuring the bishops fully followed Church law for dealing with accusations in order to avoid a situation in which an abusive priest could return to ministry on the technicality of his bishop mishandling the process.

The letter, brought to public attention this week by Ireland’s RTE television and published by the Associated Press, was written by Archbishop Luciano Storero, then-nuncio to Ireland. The letter summarised the concerns of the Congregation for Clergy regarding proposed Irish norms for dealing with the sex abuse crisis.

Archbishop Storero said that according to the congregation, “the situation of ‘mandatory reporting’ gives rise to serious reservations of both a moral and a canonical nature”.

Fr Lombardi said: “One must note that the letter in no way says that the country’s laws must not be followed.”

He said that the Vatican “does not have a universal, specific position on mandatory reporting because the laws and situations are so different from country to country”.

However, he said, the Vatican has made it clear to bishops that in their policies for dealing with abuse accusations and in concrete situations “they must respect the laws of their country”, including when those laws require the Church to report accusations to police or the courts.

News reports and groups of sex abuse victims have pointed to the 1997 letter as evidence that the Vatican directly orchestrated the response of bishops’ conferences to the sex abuse crisis, and that even in the late 1990s not everyone at the Vatican was convinced that abusers should be turned over to the police.

Fr Lombardi objected to the letter being presented as some kind of “proof” that the Vatican wanted to cover up cases of abuse.

Instead, he said, the letter demonstrated the seriousness with which the Vatican was taking the need to formulate and adopt comprehensive norms that could respond to the crisis, which was already affecting several English-speaking countries.

“The letter rightly insists on the fact that it is important that canon law be respected always, precisely to avoid giving the guilty well-founded reasons for an appeal, therefore obtaining a result contrary to that desired,” Fr Lombardi said.

The Jesuit also said people have to realise that the letter was written before 2001 when Pope John Paul II issued new norms for dealing with abuse allegations and made the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – headed by the future Pope Benedict XVI – responsible for overseeing handling of the cases.

  • SS1

    This will have to be explained carefully and clearly.

    Certainly the Vatican’s approach to this has evolved and improved over time, and there’s a big difference between adopting incremental steps in the search for the best approach and telling Bishops to cover wrongdoing up. But what was going on in the 1990s needs careful explanation.

  • Anonymous


  • Ian Logan

    Helpful assessment from John Allen –

  • Geoff

    Well, being one of the thousands of boys and girls who were “touched by the hand of God”, I was sickened by the report. I felt like I was being betrayed all over again.

    I would like to read the hard copy of the original letter in whatever language it was written in and in an accurate translation to English. There is no evidence that we can trust Vatican spokespeople.

  • wojtek

    Of course they covered it. If not we will knew it 20 years ago, not in 2010. It happens in so many countries that they must have been covering it up.

  • Rich

    Suggest they just publish the letter – simple really.

  • Neville DeVilliers

    Each time Fr. Lombardi and the Vatican have had to “clarify” the Church’s position on some matter concerning the Irish sexual abuse issue, there have been more unanswered questions than questions finally put to rest. Why would the Vatican even have to remind the Irish bishops what is or is not their duty to Ireland’s laws and courts? As if the pope had to correct errant school boys.

  • Geoff

    If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is probably a duck!

    We all owe a debt of gratitude to Norah Bernard who was a Mi’kmaq aboriginal person here in Nova Scotia. Much like Rosa Parks who started the Civil Rights movement with the price of a bus ticket as her qualification, Norah had enough money to post an ad in Maritime newspapers to see if there were more like her who suffered abuse and humiliation in the Residential Schools operated by Catholic Clergy.

    Tip of the hat to her for having not only opened the doors of the church to expose this stuff in the first place but more likely, she ripped the doors of their hinges. All of the victims world wide owe much to this courageous lady who took on the Catholic hierarchy and the Canadian government. Eventually there was a pay out of $1.5 billion to settle with our First Nations people.

    Don’t forget that the laity is the Catholic Church. The Clerics are the servants and must be brought to account.

  • Pete Reilly

    I find it incredible that whilst the rest of the world reacts with understandable horror at this letter, the Catholic Herald chooses to print another pitiful attempt at a cover-up from the Vatican

    Let’s be clear about this – they are signing a document, in Christ’s name, that tells them to cover up child rape

    You have to wonder how much the Catholic Herald knew about the atrocities going on – perhaps that’s why they are always trying so hard to make the whole thing go away

  • Weary Convert

    There was a time when the Catholic Herald was foremost in its honesty in reporting. The first serious decline I noticed was the aggressive Eire nationalism of its articles on Northern Ireland.  Then its other reporting and comments slipped down and down so that I gave up reading it weekly as I had done for so many years and instead gave it an occasional glance before putting it back on the table in near despair.  When I do read it today it seems little more than the house journal of the Ultra Catholics, comparable to the “Pravdas” published by local Councils to praise and defend themselves.  And even then, as can be seen from this website, it is not yet obscurantist enough to satisfy the “Double-Ultras” who clearly yearn for the Inquisition and the Index.

  • In Our Times

    Geoff, I am astonished by your courage & commitment. I know how hard it can be wading through this kind of material. All love to you.

  • In Our Times

    Weary, which would you say were the ‘better’ less biased & more honest publications? Genuinely interested.

  • Weary Convert

    I really wish I knew! All newspapers have their own start position, politically and socially.  Thus e.g. The Daily Mirror hates “toffs” and “Tories” and so on.  But religious papers seem not to know whether their function is honest reporting or, like local council papers, finding ways to excuse and cover-up which seems to be the position of the Catholic Herald in this case.  One must be sorry for poor Lombardi, apparently treated as an errand boy by the Vatican grandees, to explain away the unexplainable – or rather, the unforgiveable.