The beatification of Pope John Paul II would not be affected if it emerges he knew of a letter to Irish bishops advising them not to report child sex abuse claims, Channel 4 News has been told.
Irish broadcaster RTE was given the 1997 letter, which shows Vatican officials rejected a policy of “mandatory reporting” to police of abuse allegations.
The letter, which was authored by the Vatican‘s diplomat in Ireland at the time, Archbishop Luciano Storero, informed bishops that a senior panel had decided that the Irish church’s policy conflicted with canon law.
The letter, while not an edict as such, said the proposed policy “gives rise to serious reservations”.
It goes on to reiterate the church’s prerogative to deal with all child-abuse allegations in-house.
The Vatican has always maintained that the church never ordered clergymen to withhold evidence or suspicion of crimes from police, but victims of such abuse have claimed the letter contradicts that position.
Christopher Lamb, news editor of the international Catholic newspaper, The Tablet, said that it is unlikely Pope John Paul II, who was pontiff at the time, would have been aware of the letter.
“I doubt he would have known. At that point in time, the response to those issues from the Vatican was uncoordinated,” he told Channel 4 News.
“(But) if someone was able produce a link between him and this letter, it would be damaging. However, once the process of beatification has been announced, it’s unlikely to go back.”
Mr Lamb added that given the date of the letter, “it doesn’t tell us what we don’t already know,” but its real significance is the implication that there was a widespread concern about sex abuse among English-speaking bishops.
“The letter shows the battle among English–speaking bishops at that time. It sheds light on an internal debate that we hadn’t really previously known existed” he added.
“The letter is of huge international significance, because it shows that the Vatican’s intention is to prevent reporting of abuse to criminal authorities,” Mr O’Gorman, himself a victim of rape by an Irish priest, said.
Today, though, the Vatican was quick to dismiss the letter’s significance.
It said it merely exhibited an approach to sex abuse cases before 2001.
In that year, Pope John Paul II asked the Congregation for the Clergy, headed by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, to report all cases of of sexual abuse of minors to the Congregation.
Federico Lombardi, spokesman for the Holy See press office, today said that the did not instruct to give church rules priority over civil law.
“It must be noted that the letter does not in any way suggest that national laws must not be followed,” Rev Lombardi said.
“Furthermore, the letter rightly emphasises the importance of always respecting canonical legislation, precisely in order to ensure that guilty parties do not have justified grounds for an appeal and thus producing a result contrary to the one desired.”
The emergence of the letter comes less than a year when another document relating to sex abuse within the church surfaced.
Last April, it was reveled that a Vatican cardinal in charge of clergy around the world congratulated a French bishop in a 2001 letter for not denouncing a sexually abusive priest to the police.
In the letter dated Sept 8, 2001, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos backed French Bishop Pierre Pican’s decision not to denounce a priest who was later sentenced to 18 years in jail for repeated rape of a boy and sexual assaults on 10 others.
Pican, who received a suspended three-month jail sentence for not denouncing sexual abuse of minors, admitted in court he had kept Rev. Rene Bissey in parish work despite the fact the priest had privately admitted committing paedophile acts.
“I congratulate you for not denouncing a priest to the civil administration,” Castrillon Hoyos said. “You have acted well and I am pleased to have a colleague in the episcopate who, in the eyes of history and of all other bishops in the world, preferred prison to denouncing his son and priest.”
Channel 4 News compiled the first map of Catholic abuse detailing some 37 cases across England and Wales.