By NBC News’ Claudio Lavanga
A 1997 letter from a Vatican official advising Irish bishops not to report suspected child abuse cases to the police has sent shockwaves across the Catholic world.
To child abuse victims, it’s the “smoking gun” that proves what they have claimed all along: that the Vatican actively tried to prevent criminal investigations against sexually abusive priests by instructing bishops not to report them to the police.
But to the Vatican, it’s just another example of how past mistakes in handling abuse cases have since been corrected.
The letter, published by the Irish broadcaster RTE on Monday, revealed that Archbishop Luciano Storero, then the Vatican’s apostolic nuncio to Ireland (the equivalent of a Vatican ambassador), told Irish bishops that the Vatican had doubts about their “mandatory reporting” policy for suspected abusers to civil authorities.
The new policy had been introduced by Irish bishops following revelations in the mid-1990s of the abuse of dozens of children. The scandal was so big at the time that it brought down the entire Irish government.
The Vatican letter instructed bishops that abuse allegations and punishments were to be handled within the church through canon law. It warned that bishops who tried to pursue charges outside of canon law could have their actions overturned on appeal in Rome.
The newly revealed document undermines what the Vatican has said for years – that it never instructed local bishops to withhold evidence of suspected crimes from the police. It could be used as crucial evidence in multi-billion dollar lawsuits against archdioceses in the United States and across the world.
Vatican dismisses letter
The Vatican has downplayed the importance of the letter, claiming that it represents an outdated approach to sexual abuse cases and that much has changed since 1997 in the way the Vatican deals with them.
“The letter does not in any way suggest that national laws must not be followed. It rightly emphasises (sic.) the importance of always respecting canonical legislation, precisely in order to ensure that guilty parties do not have justified grounds for an appeal and thus producing a result contrary to the one desired,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said in a letter sent to msnbc.com and released on the Vatican Radio web site.
“Finally, it must be stated that the letter was written prior to the norms of 2001 which unified responsibility in this field under the jurisdiction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a move which has certainly led to clearer guidelines and more effective procedures.”
Victim: letter shows cover-up
But Colm O'Gorman, a survivor of clerical sexual abuse and founder of the Irish charity One-in-Four, said that it’s time the Catholic Church took responsibility for its mishandling of thousands of abuse cases.
“It’s just not credible to dismiss the letter because it’s 14 years old. It was 1997, not 1597, and nothing has changed since,” O’Gorman told msnbc.com. “This letter is important for a number of reasons: not only because it shows that the Vatican tried to cover-up abuse cases in Ireland, it also proves that Pope Benedict XVI was dishonest in his handling of the scandal.”
In 2009 a major Irish investigation proved that abuse among clerics in Ireland had been “endemic” for decades. As a result of the landmark investigation, Benedict accepted the resignation of some bishops and ordered an investigation into seminars and dioceses.
O’Gorman claims that the letter proves that the bishops weren’t to blame – but rather the Vatican.
“The pope said that the Church of Ireland failed to do their duty, but it turns out it was the Vatican that prevented them from doing the right thing. The Vatican is a state, and the pope is its head. As such, he needs to take responsibility for the church’s failures over the abuses,” said O’Gorman.
Pope Benedict implicated?
The newly revealed letter once again calls in to question the role of Pope Benedict in the alleged cover-up of the sexual abuse scandal.
Before being elected pope in 2005, Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was in charge of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for 24 years.
In 2001, he took over control of all investigations into claims of sexual abuse by the clergy. As a conservative theologian, he enforced the procedure set by canon law, which requires bishops to report all case of clerical sexual abuse of minors to the congregation.
While the Vatican has always maintained that Benedict introduced a more open and efficient system in the way the church deals with abuse cases, critics claim that many priests suspected of sexual abuse were simply moved to different parishes where they continued their abuse – even during his rule.
Geoffrey Robertson, a human rights lawyer based in London and author of "The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Abuse” believes the letter proves Benedict’s complicity.
“This letter reveals a policy that was decided by the Vatican when Ratzinger was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office in charge of disciplining priests worldwide. He insisted that canon law was to prevail over civil authorities,” Robertson said in a phone interview Wednesday. “The Vatican line of defense that this was an opinion of an archbishop like Storero, who was out of touch with the times, is nonsense. Ratzinger was head of the congregation since 1981, and all big decisions had to go through him”
Robertson believes the letter could be extremely damaging in a court of law. “I think that in terms of suing the Vatican for negligence in cases where there is no remedy against the local church, this letter will be useful as evidence of the Vatican’s policy. It might have been directed to Ireland but it applies throughout the world.”
One way or the other, O’Gorman still wants to see some justice for the victims of abuse.
“They need to come to terms with what they have done,” O’Gorman said. “They need to understand the scale of their negligent behavior on countless lives. It’s disingenuous and immoral.”