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Responding to Irish Government accusations

Vatican denies undermining efforts to protect children from sexual abuse and denies interfering in investigations

The Vatican has denied that it undermined the Irish bishops’ efforts to protect children from sexual abuse and described as ‘unfounded’ claims that it tried to interfere in government investigations regarding the Church’s handling of sex abuse cases.

The Vatican recognises ‘the seriousness of the crimes’ detailed in a government report about cases in the Cloyne Diocese of Ireland, and ‘has sought to respond comprehensively,’ the Vatican said in a statement.

Detailed response

The statement accompanied a 19-page formal response to the Irish Government’s Cloyne Report on the diocese and to statements made by the Irish Prime Minister and motions passed by both houses of the Irish Parliament concerning the report and the Vatican’s involvement in how cases were handled.

The Vatican said the report ‘brought to light very serious and disturbing failings in the handling of accusations of sexual abuse by children and young people by clerics in the Diocese of Cloyne’ but it said the local bishop and his vicar general were to blame.

The formal ‘Response of the Holy See’ was hand-delivered last Saturday by Mgr Ettore Balestrero, undersecretary for relations with states, to Helena Keleher, charge d’affaires at the Irish Embassy to the Holy See in Rome.

The Irish Government’s Cloyne Report was issued on July 13 and said then Bishop John Magee of Cloyne paid ‘little or no attention’ to safeguarding children as recently as 2008. The report also accused the Vatican of being ‘entirely unhelpful’ to Irish bishops who wanted to implement stronger norms for dealing with accusations and protecting children.

The Vatican Secretariat of State and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handles cases of clerical sex abuse, drafted the Vatican’s response, with input from Archbishop Leanza, and the congregations for clergy and bishops, said Fr Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman (above).

“The point of departure is the recognition of the reality of what occurred, the gravity and amount of abuse committed,” Fr Lombardi said. And, as the Cloyne Report demonstrated, the ‘deplorable’ lack of serious action on the part of the bishop and diocesan officials, he added: “The seriousness and importance of these failures is not overlooked.”

Fr Lombardi also said that claims by the Irish Prime Minster that Vatican interfered with an internal Irish inquiry were without foundation.

“The Vatican is saying here that we have asked the Irish Government just what exactly the Taoiseach was referring to and they were not able to give us a response,” he said. “Therefore we feel that this criticism, namely that there was some sort of negative Vatican intervention simply is not true. It’s not the case at all. As far as we are concerned this criticism is without foundation, nor in his speech did he say exactly what he was talking about.”

Key points

The response emphasised three points: The Congregation for Clergy’s observations about potential problems in the Irish bishops’ 1996 child protection guidelines did not nullify the guidelines or prevent local bishops from adopting them in their dioceses; Church officials, including bishops, are required to follow their nation’s civil laws regarding mandatory reporting of crimes and are free to report crimes to police even when they are not required by law to do so and that the sexual abuse of children is a crime both in civil law and in Church law.

The response began by asserting the Vatican’s ‘abhorrence for the crimes of sexual abuse’ that took place in Cloyne and other dioceses.

“The Holy See is sorry and ashamed for the terrible sufferings which the victims of abuse and their families have had to endure within the church of Jesus Christ, a place where this should never happen,” the response said.

The Vatican also said it ‘understands and shares the depth of public anger and frustration at the findings of the Cloyne Report’ though ‘the Holy See wishes to make it quite clear that it in no way hampered or interfered in the inquiry into child sexual abuse cases in Cloyne Diocese. Furthermore, at no stage did it seek to interfere with Irish civil law or impede the civil authority in the exercise of its duties,’ the response said.

In fact, it said, the Cloyne Report contains ‘no evidence to suggest that the Holy See meddled in the internal affairs of the Irish State or, for that matter, was involved in the day-to-day management of Irish dioceses or religious congregations with respect to sexual abuse issues.’


The Vatican said the drafters of the report and the Irish Government officials critical of the Vatican misunderstood the Congregation for the Clergy’s observations about the Irish bishops’ 1996 guidelines and they misunderstood the technical nature of what constitutes an official document of a bishops’ conference with Vatican-approved norms binding on all the bishops.

The Irish bishops never asked for formal recognition of the guidelines, so ‘the Holy See cannot be criticised for failing to grant what was never requested in the first place’, the Vatican said. But, it added, each of the bishops, who have the power to institute norms for their own dioceses, knew they had the authority to adopt the norms for their own dioceses.

‘The basic difficulty with regard to child protection’ in Cloyne, it said, stemmed not from a lack of formal Vatican recognition of the guidelines, ‘but from the fact that, while the diocese claimed to follow the guidelines, in reality it did not.’

The Vatican acknowledged the Congregation for Clergy had expressed reservations about mandatory reporting of abuse accusation to police or other civil authorities.

“This response should not be construed as implying that the congregation was forbidding reporting or in any way encouraging individuals, including clerics, not to cooperate with the Irish civil authorities, let alone disobey Irish civil law,” the Vatican said. “It should be borne in mind that, without ever having to consult the Holy See, every bishop is free to apply the penal measures of canon law to offending priests and has never been impeded under canon law from reporting cases of abuse to the civil authorities.”

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