In July, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny delivered a stinging indictment of the Vatican’s handling of the sexual-abuse scandal in his country. Referring to a new report on the scandal in the Diocese of Cloyne, Kenny blasted what he called “the dysfunction, the disconnection, [and] the elitism that dominate the culture of the Vatican today.”

The Cloyne Report—the latest of four state inquiries into the crisis that has inflamed Irish Catholics—examines that diocese’s response to abuse allegations between January 1996, the year Irish bishops established procedures for dealing with abuse claims, and February 2009. It finds that two-thirds of allegations during that period were not forwarded to the police, in violation of the bishops’ own guidelines. It also charges that the Vatican gave “comfort and support” to bishops who chose not to inform civil authorities of accusations against priests.

On September 3, the Vatican issued its response to the controversy. Alas, instead of addressing the substance of the Cloyne report, the Holy See chose to focus on a few erroneous statements by Irish officials (which could have been avoided had Rome’s appointed representatives in Ireland seen fit to cooperate with officials putting together these reports) and to vigorously contest a motion, passed by Parliament one week after Kenny’s address, deploring “the Vatican’s intervention which contributed to the undermining of the child-protection framework and guidelines of the Irish state and the Irish bishops.”

To understand this accusation, one must go back to 1996, when the Irish bishops were drawing up their guidelines for handling sexual-abuse claims. They submitted a “framework document” to the Congregation for Clergy in Rome, recommending that allegations against priests be forwarded to civil authorities. In a 1997 letter, the papal nuncio to Ireland responded by conveying the congregation’s view that such a policy “gives rise to serious reservations of both a moral and a canonical nature” and could be “contrary to canonical discipline.”

In its September statement, however, the Holy See insisted that the 1997 letter has been “taken out of context,” and it argued that, rather than intervening, the congregation had simply warned that mandatory reporting could make it easier for accused priests to have their canonical cases dismissed on appeal. Perhaps. Yet the 2009 Murphy Report, summarizing testimony of the chancellor of the Dublin Archdiocese, asserted that the 1997 letter “placed the bishops in an invidious position” because it indicated that a priest who was canonically prosecuted “had a right of appeal to Rome and was most likely to succeed.” In a 2011 documentary broadcast on Irish TV, an anonymous bishop is quoted expressing his belief that the 1997 letter instructed him to cover up allegations against priests.

The September 3 statement rejects the charge leveled by Irish Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore that the Vatican “intervened to effectively have priests believe they could in conscience evade their responsibilities under Irish law.” In fact, Ireland has no mandatory reporting law; indeed, as noted by the Holy See, at the height of the scandal the Irish government rejected such a mandate. Rome insists it never blocked bishops from cooperating with civil authorities, citing the 1998 statement to Irish bishops from Cardinal Dario Castrillón Hoyos, then prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, “unequivocally” stating that “the church, especially through its pastors [bishops] should not in any way put an obstacle in the legitimate path of civil justice.” According to the Vatican statement, “at no stage did the Holy See seek to interfere with Irish civil law or impede the civil authority in the exercise of its duties.”

That may well be so. But Irish anger at Rome is not limited to such smoking-gun issues. While most fair observers would agree that Benedict XVI has done more than any other pope to address the scourge of clergy sexual abuse, other curial officials seem to have had other ideas; and it does not serve the church to pretend otherwise. (The Vatican’s statement fails to mention, for instance, that three years after his “unequivocal” instruction to the Irish bishops, Castrillón wrote to a French bishop praising him for covering up for a known abuser-priest.) It is high time the Holy See stopped implying that blame for the scandals falls solely on the shoulders of local bishops.

The Vatican’s September statement acknowledges the gravity of the crimes detailed in the Cloyne Report and “the terrible sufferings which the victims of abuse and their families have had to endure,” but its claim that the Holy See “has sought to respond comprehensively” falls flat. A more honest accounting of the sexual-abuse crisis would start by acknowledging that local bishops’ failures were often the result of a culture of confidentiality that Rome itself helped to create.


Related: Ire-land, by Grant Gallicho

Published in the 2011-11-04 issue: 
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