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Vatican Rejects Irish Criticism Over Sex Abuse

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.

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 was cheered by abuse-weary Irish Catholics but stunned the Vatican and prompted it to recall its ambassador.

Kenny's speech followed the publication of a government-mandated independent report into the diocese of Cloyne, which found that the Vatican had undermined attempts by Irish bishops to protect children from predator priests.

The Cloyne document was the fourth such report to come out in recent years on the colossal scale of priestly sex abuse and cover-up in Ireland. 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.

Kenny said Saturday he would read the statement carefully before commenting. Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore said he planned a reply later Saturday.

The Cloyne report based much of its accusations against the Holy See on a 1997 letter from the Vatican's ambassador to Ireland's 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."

In his speech, Kenny said the Cloyne report "excavates the dysfunction, the disconnection, the elitism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day."

In it's response, the Vatican concurred that taken out of context, the 1997 letter from could give rise to "understandable criticism." But it said the letter had been misunderstood, that Cloyne's conclusions were "inaccurate" and that Kenny's denunciation was "unfounded."

The Vatican response 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 designed to simply ensure that church law was 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 abusive priests were shuffled from diocese to diocese just as they were in the United States and elsewhere. And critically, it wasn't until last year that the Vatican ever explicitly told bishops to cooperate with civil authorities in reporting abuse.

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 full-court press 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 a legally binding policy because the Irish bishops themselves had never sought to make it so by submitting it for official approval by the Vatican.

In fact, the Vatican response cites a letter from the then-head of the Irish bishops' conference saying the policy wasn't even an official conference publication but rather a report from an advisory committee containing a code of "recommended practice."

Another letter to the Vatican from the conference No. 2 said the policy wasn't approved by the conference and was merely offered to individual bishops as guidelines "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.

It stood by its terminology calling it a "study document" - but for the first time publicly acknowledged and seemed to support it. Even in Pope Benedict XVI's comprehensive letter to the Irish people last year, in which he apologized for the abuse, he made no reference to the 1996 policy or the other two that succeeded it, in 2003 and 2008.

Critics have argued that that lack of Vatican acknowledgment that a policy to combat abuse existed had emboldened those bishops who never intended to follow the policy in the first place.

This program aired on September 3, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

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