Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"Smoking Gun:" 1997 Letter Shows SOME Vatican Officials Tried to Obstruct Justice

Several different news outlets are carrying versions of an Associated Press article with headlines like Vatican Told Irish Bishops Not to Report Abuse.

The article says that in a 1997 letter that has not been made public before, Archbishop Luciano Storero, Pope John Paul II's diplomat to Ireland, expressed Vatican misgivings about "a 1996 Irish church initiative to begin helping police identify pedophile priests following Ireland's first wave of publicly disclosed lawsuits."

The article continues: "Storero wrote that canon law — which required abuse allegations and punishments to be handled within the church — 'must be meticulously followed.' He warned that any bishops who tried to impose punishments outside the confines of canon law would face the 'highly embarrassing" position of having their actions overturned on appeal in Rome."

Anti-child-abuse activists in Ireland and the United States saw the letter as "the smoking gun we've been looking for" to document that the Vatican not only sanctioned bishops' hiding pedophiles from criminal investigators but in fact ordered bishops to do so.

Not so fast, says the National Catholic Reporter's John Allen Jr. in a posting today. Allen allows that the letter documents "that in the late 1990s the Vatican was ambivalent about requirements that bishops be required to report abuse to police and civil prosecutors." Allen argues, though, that "There are three bits of context...which complicate efforts to tout the letter as a smoking gun."

The first was that one of the points of the letter was to avoid having bishops' determinations to remove sexual abusers overturned at the Vatican level on procedural grounds if the bishops did not follow the Code of Canon Law meticulously.

Second, the highest concern reflected in the letter was that reporting sexual abuse to the police could not be allowed to violate the seal of the confessional between the priest and his confessor: as long as the bishop protected the sanctity of the confessional, there was nothing to stop him from cooperating with local authorities.

Third, the letter reflected "a debate among senior Vatican officials about how aggressive the church ought to be in streamlining procedures for sex abuse cases." The letter, says Allen, reflects the position of Colombian Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, head of the Congregation for the Clergy at the time. Allen notes that Castrillón lost the argument to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, whose tougher stance eventually prevailed.

Allen's bits of context may nuance how the letter constitutes "a smoking gun." But they cannot fully exonerate the Vatican--or Pope John Paul II, whose cause for sainthood is very much tarnished by the Vatican's mismanagement of the entire sexual abuse crisis.

It was good for the abused and for the church that Ratzinger's position eventually trumped the Castrillón stance which John Paul II allowed to dominate for too many years. But at the very least the Vatican is criminally liable for obstruction of justice during the time before Ratzinger prevailed.

The letter undoubtedly is one of the smoking guns for that period. Everyone believes there are more. Now Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger knows that first-hand. He ought to admit it publicly--and in every court case in which the issue is raised. That is the only substantive way for the Roman Catholic institution to make amends for its criminal behavior.

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