A Vatican smoking gun?

Irish broadcaster RTE and the Associated Press broke news this week regarding a two-page 1997 letter from the Vatican's diplomat in Ireland at the time, Archbishop Luciano Storero. From there, the story traveled quickly. The letter communicates the opinion of the Vatican's Congregation for Clergy about a set of proposed Irish policies for how to deal with priestly sexual abuse. While a careful read of the letter might yield any number of responses, the media coverage has missed the mark. By no means is this the only example, but let's just look at the New York Times piece "Vatican Warned Bishops Not to Report Child Abuse." We'll discuss the inaccurate headline in a moment, but first the lede:

A newly disclosed document reveals that Vatican officials instructed the bishops of Ireland in 1997 that they must not adopt a policy of reporting priests suspected of child abuse to the police or civil authorities.

The document appears to contradict Vatican claims that the hierarchy in Rome never determined the actions of local bishops in abuse cases, and that the church did not impede criminal investigations of accused child abusers.

Is this true?

The headline is, alas, completely inaccurate. Nowhere in the letter did the Vatican warn bishops not to report child abuse. Note there's a difference between the headline and the first paragraph. The policy in question proposed mandatory reporting for any claim of abuse, substantiated or otherwise. Storero said that the congregation had serious concerns about that policy.

Even so, that was not the main point of the brief letter. The main point was that the Irish bishops needed to make sure that their policy was in line with canon law lest convictions get overturned on technicalities. I'll let John Allen at the National Catholic Reporter explain his take on why this letter -- whatever else you might say about it -- is not how it's being portrayed by some advocates:

First, the letter warns the Irish bishops that if they were to adopt policies which violate the church's Code of Canon Law, cases in which they remove abusers from the priesthood could be overturned on procedural grounds. Were that to happen, the letter says, "the results could be highly embarrassing and detrimental."

In other words, a main concern of the letter is to ensure that when a bishop takes action against an abuser, his edict should stick -- suggesting a fairly tough line on abuse, rather than a drive to cover it up.

Second, the letter does not directly forbid bishops from reporting abusers to police and prosecutors. Instead, it communicates the judgment of one Vatican office that mandatory reporting policies raise concerns. It's not a policy directive, in other words, but an expression of opinion.

So the headline is just completely in error and the language throughout the story also suffers from this misunderstanding, it seems. The opinion of one Vatican official that mandatory reporting policies raise concerns is different than the Vatican forbidding or dictating to the bishops in anything.

Here's how the Times characterizes some of this:

It 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 results could be highly embarrassing and detrimental to those same Diocesan authorities," the letter said.

Just . . . no. In addition to making this seem like the letter is saying that all claims of sexual abuse must be handled exclusively in church channels, the language throughout is imprecise. The only "repercussions" mentioned in the letter are that failure to adhere to canonical law could mean a bishop's discipline of a priest could be overturned. There's nothing about obeying anything other than canon law -- and that for the purpose of carrying out justice against perpetrators of crimes. It doesn't quite match with the "smoking gun" rhetoric employed in many journalistic write-ups of the piece, but that's what the letter says. (Interested readers might also check out Jimmy Akin's thorough take on this over at the National Catholic Register.)

And as for the "moral and canonical" bit, the actual text from the letter is:

In particular, the situation of 'mandatory reporting' gives rise to serious reservations of both a moral and canonical nature.

Immediately this suggests something like problems with respecting the seal of the confessional, right? The letter provides no details, but that's what immediately comes to mind when you think of how sexual abuse comes to light. Or there are many cases when abuse is reported on condition of anonymity. Now, perhaps a church still might want to adopt a mandatory reporting policy for a certain level of substantiation -- but these are concerns that should be explained rather than distorted.

Allen gives a third reason for why he believes the "smoking gun" angle taken by reporters is overblown. He basically says it can't be a smoking gun because the Congregation for Clergy at that time was under the direction of Colombian Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos and his dislike of reporting priests to civil authorities has been well documented. And while this won't jive with the Times oft-discussed attempts to make Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (aka Pope Benedict XVI) the bad guy in all of this, Hoyos and Ratzinger were at opposing sides on how to handle sex abuse cases. Ratzinger eventually won out. Or, as Allen puts it:

In that light, the 1997 letter seems less a statement of Vatican policy than an expression of what would eventually be the losing side in an internal Vatican power struggle.

Yes, all of this requires some complex understanding -- from Vatican power struggles to the importance of the confessional seal -- but it's certainly not an insurmountable barrier.

Addendum: After writing this, I just noted that the online version of the Times story has been updated. The headline has been changed to "Vatican Letter Warned Bishops on Abuse Policy." That is a wonderful change to an accurate headline.

The first part of the lede has also been changed, also for the better. It now says that the document reveals that Vatican officials spoke of their serious reservations about mandatory reporting. The new version also removes that confusing language about abuse cases being handled exclusively in church courts and explains that the "moral and canonical" concerns deal with the mandatory reporting. In fact, this updated version is just much better at explaining all of these details. If you want to see the older version of the story, I found it here.

Kudos to the New York Times for updating the story to be more accurate and informative. And if you're looking for existing examples of some of the mistakes noted above, it looks like the Associated Press is the outlet that really got the inaccuracy ball rolling here in this report on the letter and its meaning.

Image via Flickr stream of Michele Hubacek aka the Choctopus.

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