On January 17th, an RTE show called “Would You Believe” aired their special on clerical sexual abuse. Although the subject has been well covered in Irish, and international, media, the show promised to deliver new and damning information that would implicate church officials further afield than Ireland, and as far as the Vatican too. Despite this introduction, I found myself surprised at some of the information they presented. I had hoped, as I usually do in this case, that humanity, morality, and desire for dignity would win through; sadly, the program only served to confirm the suspicions of many – that those who engaged in the systematic cover-up of clerical sexual abuse did so with both the knowledge, and indeed, the support of the Vatican.

The documentary highlights a letter sent by the Vatican (through the late Archbishop Luciano Storero, who was Pope John Paul’s envoy to Ireland) to Ireland’s bishops, which warns them not to report suspected cases of abuse to the Gardai. This letter was sent in response to an initiative to help identify and report suspected abusers, started by the church in Ireland in 1996, which made the reporting of abuse cases mandatory. One might reasonably expect that this kind of cooperation would elicit support from other countries, and from the Vatican, but the Vatican’s response was to say that this “gives rise to serious reservations of both a moral and canonical nature”.

The letter goes on to state that canon law must be “meticulously followed” (i.e. that all allegations, and potential punishments, are handled within the church). It also states that any bishop who tried to go outside canon law (by reporting the abuse to the proper authorities) would find themselves in the “highly embarrassing” position of being overruled, as the case would be overturned on appeal in Rome. To direct church authorities to cover-up cases of abuse is not only morally reprehensible, but it is also treading on very shaky legal ground; after all, it is likely that any ruling which was applied to bishops in Ireland would equally be applied elsewhere, and in many countries, one is legally obliged to report abuse (although sadly, Ireland is not one of them). Although it is not a legal obligation in Ireland, I find it troubling that priests, bishops, and their superiors deemed it more appropriate to follow these directions than to report abuse that they knew was happening. As church leaders, they serve as guiding figures for the religious community in which they are placed, and they shoulder the responsibility of moral, ethical, and religious guidance of the people in that community. To discover that so many have proven themselves morally bankrupt is disturbing, to say the least.

As an aside from the personal disgust that I feel when dealing with this issue, the letter itself may prove to be a key piece of evidence in current and future investigations into child abuse. Since the story broke in Ireland, the Vatican has maintained an air of detachment – apologising (but only in the barest sense), but always emphasising and pushing forward the position that they did not know that the abuse was being covered up, and that they did not endorse it in any way. Now, in addition to the fact that the Vatican has failed to endorse any child protection initiatives put in place in Ireland, this letter suggests that the Vatican not only knew about the abuse, but actively encouraged, and indeed demanded, that it be covered up. The Vatican has refused to participate in any of the investigations, and has refused to provide documentation or information, which has hampered the efforts of those seeking to bring light to the abuse. While many cases were proven in spite of the obstructive behaviour of Vatican officials , many more were not reported on. The reason given for the uncooperative behaviour has always come back to blame – namely, the Vatican claiming no knowledge and no involvement. This letter casts that assertion into serious doubt.

Perhaps worse even then the existence of such a document is the very fact that its direction enabled a number of abusers to continue molesting and raping children with what amounts to the support of those in Rome. One case cited in the documentary is that of Tony Walsh, who was eventually exposed as a notorious paedophile. In 1993, he was defrocked by a secret church court in Ireland, after his appalling history of abusive behaviour was discovered. He appealed his case to the Vatican court, and in 1994, that court overturned the decision made by the Irish church court, and reinstated him as a priest. Later that year, he raped a boy in a pub bathroom. While the exact number is unknown (in part due to the lack of cooperation by church officials and the Vatican), investigators estimate that he may have raped and/or molested more than 100 children. In cases such as this, the Vatican can no longer hold themselves apart from blame – they are directly responsible for allowing Walsh to continue to abuse his position to molest children, and they reinstated him in this position in full knowledge of his past deeds.

Another piece of documentation comes from that ever-giving font of knowledge, wikileaks. In a cable from the Vatican Embassy (#10VATICAN33), it is revealed that Vatican officials were offended by requests for information, stating that they failed to “respect and protect Vatican sovereignty”

While Vatican contacts immediately expressed deep sympathy for the victims and insisted that the first priority was preventing a recurrence, they also were angered by how the situation played out politically. The Murphy Commission’s requests offended many in the Vatican, the Holy See’s Assessor Peter Wells (protect strictly) told DCM, because they saw them as an affront to Vatican sovereignty. Vatican officials were also angered that the Government of Ireland did not step in to direct the Murphy Commission to follow standard procedures in communications with Vatican City.

It seems that, while publicly, the Vatican rushed to state that they were appalled, and sorry for the victims, privately, they were more concerned that requests for information were not coming through proper, diplomatic (in other words, ignorable) channels. There is more concern about the reputation of the Vatican, its sovereignty as a state, and its ability to hide behind diplomatic immunity, than there is for the victims of the abuse, described as “endemic” both in the media, and in the cable itself.

The cable also discusses the potential for the reduction of influence of the church in Ireland, as a result of the scandal. As before, it seems more concerned with the position and standing of the church, and allows considerable space to congratulate the VAtican on its handling of the issue (more space than is given to expressing sorrow at the events).

Vatican analysts, meanwhile, agree that the Holy See’s handling of the Irish scandal shows the Vatican learned some important lessons from the U.S. sex abuse scandal of 2002. By acting quickly to express horror at allegations, to label the alleged acts both crimes and sins, and to call in the local leaders to discuss how to prevent recurrences, the Vatican limited – but certainly did not eliminate – the damage caused to the Church’s standing in Ireland and worldwide. Unfortunately, given the growing abuse scandal in Germany, it may need to deploy those lessons again before long.

Much space is devoted to discussing how the Vatican has “handled” the issue, and how it is now up to the local bishops to deal with the fallout. Perhaps most repellent of all is the final comment in the paragraph above, which notes that the Vatican may need to “deploy those lessons again before long” to deal with abuse stories being dealt with in Germany. Rather than noting a need for significant change within the church, and with the way problems are dealt with, the focus is once again on “damage control”, and on how the Vatican may best preserve its standing.

The Vatican has maintained a distinctly “hands off” approach in dealing with the child sex abuse scandal in Ireland. While there have been some token apologies, Vatican officials have continued to maintain that they had no involvement. It is clear now that this simply isn’t true. While the Irish tax payer has been paying compensation to the victims of abuse, the Vatican has contributed nothing (while, nevertheless, raising millions to cover the cost of a papal visit that was unwanted by many), and has obstructed investigations at every turn. One must now ask exactly how far diplomatic immunity and sovereignty will travel in protecting abusers, rather than the victims of abuse, and how much more has the Vatican got to hide?