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Vatican rejects Irish criticism over sex abuse

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VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican on Saturday vigorously rejected claims it sabotaged efforts by Irish bishops to report priests who sexually abused children to police and accused the Irish prime minister of making an "unfounded" attack against the Holy See.

Irish officials defended their claims that the Vatican 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 Vatican issued a 24-page response to the Irish government following Prime Minister Enda Kenny's unprecedented July 20 denunciation of the Vatican's handling of abuse — a speech that cheered abuse-weary Irish Catholics but stunned the Vatican and prompted it to recall its ambassador.

Kenny's speech was inspired by the publication of a government-mandated independent report into the County Cork diocese of Cloyne in southwest Ireland, which found that the Vatican had undermined attempts by Irish bishops to protect children by suggesting that their policy requiring abuse to be reported to police might violate church law.

The Cloyne document was the fourth report since 2005 on the colossal scale of priestly sex abuse and cover-up in Ireland, a once staunchly Catholic country that has seen the church's influence wither in light of the scandal. 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 Vatican has long rejected accusations — in lawsuits and public opinion — that it was responsible for the abuse scandal, which erupted in Ireland in the 1990s, the U.S. in 2002 and in mainland Europe and beyond last year. Thousands of people have come forward with accusations that priests molested them as children, bishops covered up the crimes and the Vatican turned a blind eye — or in the case of Cloyne actively interfered when bishops tried to bring the priests to justice.

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 debate politically. 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, Irish Foreign Minister Eamon 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.

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 Saturday the policy was never legally binding because the Irish bishops themselves had never sought to make it so by submitting 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 "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 said there was no evidence to support Kenny's accusation that it had interfered with the inquiry and that when asked Kenny's office said he wasn't referring to any specific incident.

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 noted 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 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 was provided to The Associated Press by the Vatican press office after inquiries were made about it. It is a remarkable document demonstrating 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."

"Yet again the Vatican is taking absolutely no responsibility for the culture it promoted within the church that allowed child abuse to go on for so long," Lewis said.

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.

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Online:

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

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Shawn Pogatchnik contributed to this report from Dublin.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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