VATICAN CITY (AP) - The Vatican launched a new round of damage control Wednesday over priestly sex abuse, insisting that a 1997 letter warning Irish bishops against reporting abuse to police had been "deeply misunderstood."
The Associated Press on Tuesday published the contents of the letter, in which the Vatican's top diplomat in Ireland told bishops that their policy of mandatory police reporting "gives rise to serious reservations of both a moral and canonical nature."
The letter, obtained originally by Irish broadcaster RTE from an Irish bishop, has undermined persistent Vatican claims, particularly when seeking to defend itself in U.S. lawsuits, that Rome never told bishops not to cooperate with police.
An Irish government-ordered investigation into decades of abuse cover-ups in the Dublin Archdiocese concluded that Irish bishops understood the letter to mean they shouldn't report suspected crimes.
And victims groups say it's a "smoking gun" that shows that the church enforced a worldwide culture of concealing crimes by pedophile priests of which Rome bears ultimate - and legal - responsibility.
"The letter confirms that the cover-up goes as far as the Vatican, that Vatican officials knew exactly what was going on, and that they proactively sought to deter Irish bishops from cooperating with civil authorities in Ireland," said Andrew Madden, a former Dublin altar boy who was raped repeatedly by a priest, Ivan Payne, in the 1980s.
"This letter also documents how the church remained of the view that it is a law unto itself, how its rules and regulations regarding the handling of a criminal offense take precedence over civil society's laws," said Madden, who in 1995 became the first victim in Ireland to go public with a lawsuit against the Catholic Church.
On Wednesday, the Vatican insisted that its 1997 letter was only intended to emphasize that Irish bishops must follow church law meticulously. The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the Holy See wanted to ensure that pedophile priests wouldn't have any technical grounds to escape church punishment on appeal.
It by no means instructed bishops to disregard civil reporting requirements about abuse, added the Vatican's U.S. lawyer, Jeffrey Lena, who said the letter had been "deeply misunderstood" by the media.
At the time, there were no such reporting requirements in Ireland. In fact, the Irish bishops were ahead of Irish lawmakers in pledging cooperation with law enforcement as dioceses were hit with the first wave of lawsuits by victims of abusive priests.
Yet as a result of the 1997 letter, most Irish dioceses outside Dublin never implemented the 1996 commitment to report all suspected abuse cases to police, according to the conclusions of the Dublin Archdiocese investigation published in 2009.
"This in fact never took place because of the response of Rome," said the Dublin Archdiocese commission in its report.
That eight-year investigation interviewed two senior Dublin Archdiocese canon lawyers involved in handling abuse complaints. They were quoted as saying that the letter discouraged bishops from pursuing their 1996 initiative for fear of being overruled by Rome, as had already happened in one notorious case of a serial pedophile.