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Irish abuse victims 'disgusted' at Vatican letter

By the CNN Wire Staff
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2010: Pope 'sorry' for Ireland abuse
  • Victims will grill a cardinal representing the pope on Friday, they say
  • A 1997 letter warns bishops to follow canonical law
  • Victims groups say it is a smoking gun proving a systematic cover-up
  • Irish bishops have had mandatory reporting rules since 1996, their spokesman says

Belfast, Northern Ireland (CNN) -- Irish victims of sexual abuse are "disgusted" by a newly revealed letter in which a Vatican official expresses "serious reservations" about requiring bishops to report suspected abuse by priests to police, they said Wednesday.

Abuse survivors will question the cardinal leading a special papal delegation to Ireland about the letter, they said.

"We are disgusted by details revealed in the letter. Many of our members just can't take this in and have been deeply affected by the revelations," Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse spokeswoman Margaret McGuckin told CNN.

The 1997 letter from the Vatican's envoy to Ireland warns bishops to follow church law in investigating cases of suspected child sex abuse by priests.

2009: Irish child abuse report out
2010: Irish Catholics divided

The envoy expresses "serious reservations" about requiring that such cases be reported to the police.

The Vatican has called the letter "deeply misunderstood" since it was made public by Irish state broadcaster RTE this week. CNN obtained a copy of the letter on Tuesday from a lawyer who represents the Vatican.

A spokesman for the Conference of Irish Bishops said they have since 1996 had a policy of reporting suspected abuse to the police.

Victims of abuse are due to meet Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor on Friday, they said. He was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI last year to work with the Irish church after revelations of widespread abuse by priests and cover-ups by their superiors.

"The meeting with the cardinal couldn't have come at a better time -- we will be letting him know exactly how we feel, will be putting many questions and will be demanding answers," McGuckin said.

A spokeswoman for the cardinal declined to confirm he would meet victims on Friday, citing the sensitivity of the issue.

The two-page letter, written by Apostolic Nuncio Luciano Storero, was sent to bishops in Ireland in response to a document they had sent to the Vatican that recommends mandatory reporting of cases of suspected child sex abuse by priests.

After studying the Irish bishops' document, the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy said it contains "procedures and dispositions which appear contrary to canonical discipline and which, if applied, could invalidate the acts of the same bishops who are attempting to put a stop to these problems.

"If such procedures were followed by the bishops and there were cases of eventual hierarchical recourse lodged at the Holy See, the results could be highly embarrassing and detrimental to those same diocesan authorities," Storero wrote.

"In particular, the situation of 'mandatory reporting' gives rise to serious reservations of both a moral and a canonical nature," he added.

RTE said it had received the letter from an Irish bishop and that Catholic officials in the country had previously refused to release it.

The RTE program "Would You Believe?" said Pope Benedict XVI is now doing more than any previous pope has done to tackle abuse, but asked whether that has been enough.

Martin Long, a spokesman for Irish Catholic bishops, said the pope had twice in the past year urged them to follow procedures the church established to protect children.

"Also the Irish Church maintains its policy of mandatory reporting of abuse allegations," Long said, calling on the Irish government "to introduce law which facilitates mandatory reporting of allegations of sex abuse."

Jeffrey Lena, the lawyer representing the Holy See in the United States, said in a statement that "the letter in question has been deeply misunderstood."

He said its primary purpose "was to help ensure that bishops who discipline their priests for sexual abuse did so in a manner that would ensure that the priest not avoid punishment based upon technical grounds. This is precisely the opposite of what has been reported in many press accounts."

The letter also raised questions about the canonical validity of what Lena called the "study document" produced by the Irish bishops' conference. "As such, contrary to media reports, the letter did not constitute a rejection of the position of the conference," he said. "Finally, and again in stark contrast to news reports, the letter nowhere instructed Irish bishops to disregard civil law reporting requirements."

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the letter rightly insists that canon law be respected to ensure that guilty priests have no grounds for recourse.

"We need to remember that the letter was written before the norms of 2001," which clarified the matter, he said.

But victims' and survivors' groups in Ireland said the letter proves the protection of pedophile priests from criminal investigation was not only sanctioned by Vatican leaders but ordered by them. One in Four, an organization representing victims of sexual abuse in Ireland, said the letter raised questions about the inquiry into child sex abuse by clerics in Ireland.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests raised similar concerns. "In the mid 1990s, Irish bishops wanted to start telling law enforcement about horrific child sex crimes," the group said in a statement. "Top Vatican bureaucrats told them no. That's what this newly released letter shows. We can't help but wonder how many other similar documents -- in which the Vatican thwarts local efforts to combat abuse -- remain hidden in church records across the world."

"It's certainly an embarrassment for the Vatican," said CNN Senior Vatican Analyst John L. Allen Jr. "It's another confirmation that, in the late 1990s, there was deep ambivalence in the Vatican about how far they should go in terms of reporting priestly sex abuse to civil authorities."

But, he added, "It's not a smoking gun because it is not a directive. Not an order. This is one Vatican official giving his opinion. It is not a policy document."

Current church policy calls for such cases -- learned about outside the confessional -- to be reported to police, he said.

CNN's Ben Brumfield and journalist Peter Taggart contributed to this report.