The Vatican on Saturday vigorously rejected accusations it had sabotaged efforts by Irish bishops to report priests who sexually abused children to police and charged that the Irish prime minister had made an "unfounded" attack against the Holy See.
The Vatican issued a 24-page response to the Irish government after Prime Minister Enda Kenny and the Irish parliament publicly denounced the Vatican following the publication in July of a government-mandated investigation into priestly sex abuse in the diocese of Cloyne in southern Ireland. The report found that the Vatican had undermined attempts by Irish bishops to protect children by warning that their policy requiring abuse to be reported to police might violate church law.
The Cloyne report, and Kenny's unprecedented dressing down of the Holy See that followed, prompted cheers from Irish Catholics who have grown increasingly disgusted by the colossal scale of priestly sexual abuse and cover-up in Ireland and the Vatican's consistent claim that it bore no blame.
The diplomatic standoff was particularly acute given that Ireland has long been staunchly Roman Catholic, Kenny himself is a practicing Catholic, and the church has long enjoyed a privileged place in society. The abuse scandal has taken its toll, however, and Kenny's speech was a remarkable indication of just how deep the wounds are.
It also came as the Vatican is fighting on multiple legal fronts in the U.S. to defend itself against lawsuits alleging it is liable for abusive priests. Just last month, the Holy See was forced to turn over internal personnel files of an abusive priest to lawyers representing a victim in Oregon.
The Vatican was patently stunned by Kenny's July 20 speech and recalled its ambassador. In the seven weeks since, it drafted a detailed response, hoping to set the record straight and assure Ireland's abuse-weary faithful that it is serious about cracking down on predator priests.
Irish leaders, however, were not convinced. Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore said he remained certain that the Vatican had exacerbated the abuse crisis and criticized the Holy See for offering an overly "legalistic" justification of its actions in dealing with priests who rape and molest children.
The Cloyne document was the fourth report since 2005 to document abuse in the Irish church. But it was the first to squarely find the Vatican culpable in promoting the culture of secrecy and cover-up that kept abusers in ministry and able to prey on more children.
The Cloyne report based much of its accusations against the Holy See on a 1997 letter from the Vatican's ambassador to Ireland to the country's bishops expressing "serious reservations" about their policy requiring bishops to report abusers to police.
A committee of Irish bishops had adopted the policy in 1996 under mounting public pressure as the first cover-ups came to light, a year after a former altar boy became the first abuse victim in Ireland to go public with a lawsuit against the church.
The Cloyne report charged that the Vatican's 1997 letter "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 church policy."
The Vatican concurred that, taken out of context, the 1997 letter could give rise to "understandable criticism." But it said the letter had been misinterpreted, that the Cloyne report's conclusions were "inaccurate" and that Kenny's denunciation was "unfounded."
The Vatican noted that at the time, in the mid-1990s, there was no law in Ireland requiring professionals to report suspected abuse to police and that the issue was a matter of intense political debate. In fact, Ireland has never had a law explicitly making the failure to report suspected child abuse a crime, but is planning to draft one now in the wake of the Cloyne report.
"Given that the Irish government of the day decided not to legislate on the matter, it is difficult to see how (the Vatican's) letter to the Irish bishops, which was issued subsequently, could possibly be construed as having somehow subverted Irish law or undermined the Irish state in its efforts to deal with the problem in question," the Vatican said.
The response said the Vatican's concerns about mandatory reporting weren't designed to thwart police investigations, but were aimed at ensuring that church law was meticulously followed to prevent abusive priests from being able to overturn any church sanctions on appeal.
The Vatican has detailed internal policies for investigating priestly sex abuse, with sanctions that include being dismissed from the clerical state. Such norms, however, were rarely if ever followed. And critically, it wasn't until last year that the Vatican ever explicitly told bishops to cooperate with civil authorities in reporting abusive priests.
After reading the report, Gilmore said squarely: "I remain of the view that the 1997 letter from the then-nuncio provided a pretext for some to avoid full cooperation with Irish civil authorities."
The Cloyne report also admonished the Vatican for diminishing the bishops' abuse policy as a mere "study document" in the 1997 letter, implying that it wasn't an official policy that needed to be followed and giving cover to those bishops who chose not to implement it.
The policy had been presented at the time as mandatory for all of Ireland's bishops: they staged a news conference to announce it, the country's highest ranking prelate wrote a forward to the policy, and individual bishops pledged to implement it.
The Vatican, however, said the Cloyne investigation was incorrect in saying it had rejected the policy. The Vatican said the policy was never presented to the Vatican for approval. As such, it said, it wasn't legally binding since the only way bishops' conferences can make binding country-wide policy is to submit it for official approval by the Holy See.
In fact, the Vatican response cites two letters from the Irish bishops' conference saying the policy wasn't an official conference publication but rather a report from an advisory committee containing recommended guidelines that were offered to individual bishops "that could _ and indeed should _ be followed."
"Since the Irish bishops did not choose to seek recognition for the Framework Document, the Holy See cannot be criticized for failing to grant what was never requested in the first place," the Vatican said.
Gilmore blasted such a technical, "legalistic" argument.
"The sexual abuse of children is such a heinous and reprehensible crime that issues about the precise status of documents should not be allowed to obscure the obligation of people in positions of responsibility to deal promptly with such abuse and report it," he said.
"The sense of betrayal which was felt by Irish people about this matter, and which was clearly expressed by (Kenny), came about not only because of the nature of child abuse itself but also because of the unique position which the Catholic Church enjoyed in this country, manifested in many ways, over many decades."
The Vatican stood by its terminology calling it a "study document" _ but for the first time publicly acknowledged its very existence, urged bishops to cooperate with civil authorities and told them to "ensure the full and impartial application" of all the Irish church's child protection norms.
Kenny had also accused the Vatican of frustrating the inquiry into the Cloyne diocese, and that in doing so said the Cloyne report "excavates the dysfunction, the disconnection, the elitism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day."
The Vatican noted that the Cloyne report makes no such accusation and said there was no evidence to support Kenny's claim. When asked, Kenny's office said he wasn't referring to any specific incident, the Vatican response said.
Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, the church's leading voice calling for honesty about abuse, said Kenny's unsubstantiated claim "merits explanation."
Martin, who has clashed both with the Vatican and his fellow bishops in demanding greater accountability, also charged that those same bishops who used the 1997 letter as an excuse to ignore the Irish policy continue to ignore Vatican-mandated laws on dealing with abusers.
"These people may be few, but the damage they caused was huge," Martin said Saturday in urging Ireland and the Vatican to move beyond the polemics of the last few weeks and work together to protect children.
"There may well have been a cabal in Cloyne," he told The Associated Press. "They may have friends elsewhere in the Irish church. And they may have friends in the Vatican, yes."
The 1997 letter from the Vatican's ambassador based its findings on a review of the Irish policy by the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy. At the time, the congregation was headed by Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, who as a matter of policy routinely defended the church's practice of not reporting abuse to police in favor of guarding the rights of accused priests.
Surprisingly, the Vatican response Saturday cites a 1998 speech Castrillon Hoyos delivered to Irish bishops on dealing with sexual abuse in which he stressed that the church and its priests "should not in any way put an obstacle in the legitimate path of civil justice." The Vatican said his speech showed that civil law and church law can operate in parallel.
The response doesn't, however, cite the rest of Castrillon Hoyos' speech, in which he resoundingly criticized the Irish mandatory reporting policy, said it should be revised and that such reporting requirements risked that "the image of the bishop can be turned into more of a policeman than a true father."
He acknowledged that such crimes need to be dealt with quickly, but warned against "obsessive" pursuit of accused priests by bishops because of the damage it can do to the priests, whose souls, he said, were "at the center of the affair."
"If he is guilty, we must, before anything else, be involved with his conversion," Castrillon Hoyos said. "If as often happens, he is a victim of calumny, we must help him to prove his innocence and carry this cross."
The speech is a remarkable demonstration of what many victims' advocates consider the Vatican's misplaced concern for the rights of priests over the welfare of children.
Maeve Lewis, director of the Irish victims support group One in Four, said the Vatican's response to Kenny was merely "an exercise in self-justification, an attempt to justify the unjustifiable."
She and Andrew Madden, the Irish altar boy whose 1995 lawsuit helped open the floodgates for hundreds of abuse lawsuits, both cheered Kenny for putting into words what many Irish felt about the Vatican's culpability.
"The fact that Ireland doesn't yet have mandatory reporting on its statute books doesn't in any way excuse the church's policy of cover-up, of reassigning pedophiles repeatedly to other parishes, and of lying about it when caught," Madden said.
Vatican's response is at http://bit.ly/ocmYve
Cloyne Report is at http://bit.ly/pyi8oF
Irish bishops' 1996 "Framework Document" is at http://bit.ly/rqdcnD
Shawn Pogatchnik contributed to this report from Dublin.