Did the Vatican encourage Irish bishops not to report sexual abuse?

You might have seen the New York Times article yesterday that made a serious claim about the Vatican’s response to the abuse scandal in Ireland — namely, according to its original title, that it “warned bishops not to report child abuse.” That incendiary title seems to have been changed today, but the charge is largely the same:

A newly disclosed document reveals that Vatican officials told the bishops of Ireland in 1997 that they had serious reservations about the bishops’ policy of mandatory reporting of priests suspected of child abuse to the police or civil authorities.

The document appears to contradict Vatican claims that church leaders in Rome never sought to control the actions of local bishops in abuse cases, and that the Roman Catholic Church did not impede criminal investigations of child abuse suspects.

Abuse victims in Ireland and the United States quickly proclaimed the document to be a “smoking gun” that would serve as important evidence in lawsuits against the Vatican.


Over at the National Catholic Register, Jimmy Akin goes through the Times piece and the original letter to the Irish bishops — line by line — and finds the charge to be overblown:

How did Laurie Goodstein frame this in her article for the Times? She wrote: “It [the letter] said that for both ‘moral and canonical’ reasons, the bishops must handle all accusations through internal church channels. Bishops who disobeyed, the letter said, may face repercussions when their abuse cases were heard in Rome.”


The only “repercussions” mentioned in the letter is the embarrassing situation a bishop would find himself in if he failed to follow the law and a miscarriage of justice resulted and Rome overturns it on appeal.  Yet Goodstein makes it sound as if the letter is threatening bishops with some kind of retaliation if they don’t “obey” the letter. This is wrong on several levels.

In fact, the passage that Akin cites from Goodstein’s article above no longer appears in the piece. It seems as though someone else may have thought the original claim was overreaching, too.

You can read Akin’s complete analysis of the letter, and the Times reporting, here.

Margaret Cabaniss


Margaret Cabaniss is the former managing editor of Crisis Magazine. She joined Crisis in 2002 after graduating from the University of the South with a degree in English Literature and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She now blogs at SlowMama.com.

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