Wed January 19, 2011

Did The Vatican Tell Irish Bishops To Protect Priests?

The Vatican is trying to downplay a letter that seems to warn Irish bishops not to report sex abuse cases to authorities. The Vatican says the 14-year-old letter does not instruct Irish bishops to disregard civil law, but lawyers in the U.S. say it shows the Vatican was responsible for sheltering abusive priests.

In 1996, Catholic bishops in Ireland drafted a policy saying they would begin working with police to help identify known or suspected pedophile priests. A year later, a Vatican panel wrote back with its assessment of the policy. The Congregation for the Clergy said that the proposed policy might violate the church's canon law.

The results could be "highly embarrassing and detrimental," the letter said, adding: "The situation of mandatory reporting gives rise to serious reservations of both a moral and canonical nature."

"This letter is a stunning piece of evidence," says plaintiff's attorney Jeffrey Anderson. He says it is proof that "the Vatican has control, it's iron-fisted, it demands secrecy, and it fails to protect the kids, as it did our client."

Anderson is suing the Vatican -- something no one has done successfully before -- on behalf of an American molested by a priest. To do so, he is trying to prove that the priest was an employee of the Vatican, and therefore the Vatican is accountable. And that's where the 1997 letter is helpful, he says: This and other documents show the buck stops with the pope.

"There is but one entity, and one man, that is in control of all matters pertaining to sexual abuse, and the movement of priests and that is the Holy See, the pope," he says.

Canon lawyer Nick Cafardi of Duquesne University Law School disagrees.

"It's not a smoking gun," he says, arguing that the letter to the Irish bishops is bathed in hypotheticals -- problems that could arise if the bishops turned over cases to the police.

"It doesn't say, 'You can't do this.' It says, 'It might be problematical,' " Cafardi says. "If I'm an Irish bishop and I get a letter like this, I think, 'Well, OK, that's their opinion.' "

Jeffrey Lena, an attorney for the Vatican in the U.S., agrees. In a statement, he says that nowhere does the letter tell Irish bishops to ignore requirements to report crimes. Rather, he says the Vatican was only warning Irish bishops that if they didn't follow church law precisely, a Vatican court could overturn a decision to defrock an abusive priest.

However one interprets the Irish letter, it's unclear whether it will help any lawsuit in the United States.

"If it can be shown it applied in the United States, it would, I think, be very damaging," says Joe Dellapena, a law professor at Villanova University.

But for it to be relevant in U.S. courts, he says, you have to show that the letter was intended to apply to U.S. bishops, or that U.S. bishops received a similar warning.

"If you could show other evidence of Vatican involvement in the United States, maybe the Irish letter might reinforce an inference," he says. "But by itself it doesn't prove very much about the United States."

The bigger problem, lawyers say, is that it's enormously difficult to sue the Vatican, because under U.S. law, the Vatican is considered a sovereign state -- like Italy or France -- and U.S. courts are almost always unwilling to reach into affairs of foreign states.

Still, the letter has given a boost to plaintiffs' attorneys, who want to use the letter to draw a direct line between sexual abusers in the U.S. and the Vatican. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.