What the Vatican’s “Irish Letter” Really Said

The news media is covering a letter sent from the Vatican to the bishops of Ireland allegedly ordering the cover-up of child sex abuse. The letter said no such thing, but provides an excellent opportunity to example the dangers of the proposed mandatory reporting requirement.

I. The Background
In 1997, the Bishops of Ireland were considered a mandatory reporting requirement for sexual abuse reporting.  They spoke with the Vatican (specifically, the Congregation for the Clergy) about how to punish sexual predator priests canonically (i.e., what the procedure was for defrocking the priest in question), and about the following proposed rule (available here):

2.2. Recommended Reporting Policy

2.2.1 In all instances where it is known or suspected that a child has been, or is being, sexually abused by a priest or religious the matter should be reported to the civil authorities. Where the suspicion or knowledge results from the complaint of an adult of abuse during his or her childhood, this should also be reported to the civil authorities.

2.2.2 The report should be made without delay to the senior ranking police officer for the area in which the abuse is alleged to have occurred. Where the suspected victim is a child, or where a complaint by an adult gives rise to child protection questions, the designated person within the appropriate health board/health and social services board should also be informed. A child protection question arises, in the case of a complaint by an adult, where an accused priest or religious holds or has held a position which has afforded him or her unsupervised access to children.

2.2.3 The Advisory Committee recognises that this recommended reporting policy may cause difficulty in that some people who come to the Church with complaints of current or past child sexual abuse by a priest or religious seek undertakings of confidentiality. They are concerned to protect the privacy of that abuse of which even their immediate family members may not be aware. Their primary reason in coming forward may be to warn Church authorities of a priest or religious who is a risk to children.

2.2.4 The recommended reporting policy may deter such people from coming forward or may be perceived by those who do come forward as an insensitive and heavy-handed response by Church authorities. This is particularly so where the complaint relates to incidents of abuse many years earlier.

2.2.5 Nonetheless, undertakings of absolute confidentiality should not be given but rather the information should be expressly received within the terms of this reporting policy and on the basis that only those who need to know will be told.

Consider the implications of these proposed requirements:


II. The Effect on Innocent Priests

If you so much as suspect that a priest did something wrong, you have to report it immediately, without delay. No calling in the priest and speaking to possible witnesses to collaborate the victim’s story to make sure that the accusation is credible.  Once you suspect, you report.  Obviously, the potential for false accusations (of which there have been countless, something which sometimes gets overlooked) is very high.  And the damage that a false sex-abuse accusation can do to an innocent priest’s reputation, and his relationship with his bishop (especially when the bishop himself is the one who submitted the false report) is high. We’ve seen in the United States cases of sex-abuse hysteria (most notably, in the 1980s, when numerous daycare workers and teachers were falsely accused of child sex abuser), and the rest is genuine.  Part of protecting the innocent includes the priests — although admittedly, bishops gave this concern too much weight, given the innocent children whose safety was in much more grave danger.
III. The Effect on Victims

Here’s something I haven’t heard mentioned in the mainstream media, but which needs to be brought up: the only group of people that a mandatory reporting requirement would cover are those who aren’t going to go to the police otherwise.  Think about it.  If they’ve gone, or are going to go, no need for a mandatory requirement.  So we’re dealing only with the cases that someone is afraid to, or refuses to, speak to the police.  There are a lot of reasons that this might be.  Four that I’ve heard:
  1. The victim has come forward on his/her own, as an adult, and doesn’t want their spouse or parents to learn about this terrible event;
  2. They’re afraid of their abuser, and of retaliation from the abuser priest or his supporters; 
  3. They’ve moved on, and don’t want to testify in open court, being forced to relive the entire experience;
  4. The statute of limitations is lapsed, so the law can’t touch the predator priest.
So why do these people still come to the Church? Easy. To remove the priest from the active priesthood, so he’s not in a position to molest any more children. 
Now consider what this standing policy of mandatory reporting would mean.  Effectively, the Church would become another branch of the police, for reporting purposes.  Those who want to avoid publicity, or trial, or revenge and recriminations now have to avoid not only the police, but the Church as well.  Or to put it more simply: in what case would a person be (a) unwilling to go to the police, but (b) willing to go to the Church, knowing that the Church would immediately go to the police?  Perhaps there are a few cases, but it seems that this is a rarety.  More likely, when victims learn that going to the Church means police involvement, they’ll simply not go to the Church.
The proposed policy even admits as much in 2.2.4, when it says that the “recommended reporting policy may deter such people from coming forward.”  That’s an enormous risk, because even after the statute of limitations has lapsed, the Church is still capable of making sure that the priest is kept away from children. As 2.2.3 notes, victims’ “primary reason in coming forward may be to warn Church authorities of a priest or religious who is a risk to children.”  That goal is only accomplished if they feel comfortable coming to the Church.  So the unintentional effect of this policy may, perversely, be less reporting to the Church, less action against predator priests, and more sex abuse victims.
Besides this, there’s still the loss of privacy and the rest.  Those who do come forward now do so at a steeper price, facing humiliation, subpoenas, media involvement, recriminations, and the rest.  In one case, a sex abuser priest actually attempted to kill his victim for coming forward to the Church and the police.  In cases where the statute of limitations has expired, for example, and the law is powerless to act against the abuser priest, it’s hard to justify these costs to the victims we’re supposed to be helping.  If they wanted police involvement, they could ask for it at any time.

IV. A Better Way
Just to be clear, here’s what I think they should have done (and should be doing) instead: they should have (a) immediately acted on credible abuse allegations to prevent predator priests from striking again — pulling them out of active ministry, and if the evidence warranted it, warning parents of a possible threat; (b) spoken with the accused priest, and (c) if the evidence supported it, encouraged victims and their families to speak to police, while providing all the spiritual and moral support possible for the wounded.  After all, people don’t come to the bishop to get a priest arrested. They come to the bishop to make sure that the priest isn’t able to continue to prey upon children — the only real remedy in cases where the statute of limitations has expired, for example, or the evidence is insufficient to hold up in court.
Beyond this, there will likely be times where the facts of the individual case warrant reporting the case to the police – where the priest’s bad acts are criminal and still punishable, where he poses an ongoing threat despite the Church’s action, etc. But those are cases for prudential judgment, not an inflexible policy.
V. The Vatican’s Response

The Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland (essentially the Vatican’s Ambassador) responded to the Irish bishops with this letter. While most of the letter deals with the necessity of canon law (as with civil law, you can’t disregard due process just because you’re personally sure the guy is guilty, so the Nuncio stressed the importance of punishing them in accordance with canon law), one sentence turned to the question of the proposed rule, stating that in particular, “the situation of ‘mandatory reporting’ gives rise to serious reservations of both a moral and canonical nature.”  This is almost undeniably true.  Not only do the accused have rights under canon law, but there are moral elements in making what you think might be a false report against a priest.  The nuncio didn’t say the Irish bishops couldn’t implement the requirement, but that it seemed very problematic.  In his letter, he also noted that:

Since the policies on sexual abuse in the English speaking world exhibit many o[f] the same characteristics and procedures, the Congregation is involved in a global study of them. At the appropriate time, with the collaboration of the interested Episcopal Conferences and in dialogue with them, the Congregation will not be remiss in establishing some concrete directives with regard to these Policies.

In other words, while this policy has some serious problems, something needs to be done, and the proposed rule might help guide the Vatican in shaping what that something is. All told, a level-headed and reasonable reply to a well-meaning but dangerous policy.  If it’s true that the unintended consequence of mandatory reporting requirements is that more sexual abuse remains covered (and this seems to be at least a strong possibility), then the Vatican was right in urging caution — particularly if the long-term goal is a broader, better thought out procedure.

VI. The Media’s Misrepresentation
The response to this letter by the mainstream media has been shocking, even by their already low standards.  The New York Times ran a story on Tuesday entitled “Vatican Warned Bishops Not to Report Child Abuse.”  This headline is simply a lie.  At no point in the letter does the Vatican even hint that you shouldn’t report child abuse — the closest it got was saying that establishing a mandatory requirement might pose moral and canonical requirements.

Think about it this way: Republicans are mostly against the “individual mandate,” which would force people to buy health insurance.  Does that mean that Republicans are warning the public not to buy health insurance?  That conclusion would be absurd.  Here, we quite clearly see the opposite, since the Vatican was trying to determine what the global policy should be for creating a reporting requirement.

No bishop – none – could have construed that letter to mean, “you’re not allowed to report child abuse.”  Nothing in the letter says or even hints at this, and nothing in the Times piece supports its accusation.  Remember, the bishops weren’t asking, “Can we report sex abuse to the authorities?”  That answer is obvious: they can, and in some cases, must.  The question that they asked was (in essence), “Should we make reporting mandatory, regardless of the circumstances or evidence?”  Those aren’t the same question at all, and they don’t have the same answer.

In its very limited defense, the Times has now changed it’s headline from the blatantly-false to the more accurate “Vatican Letter Warned Bishops on Abuse Policy.” Nevertheless, the piece is still chock full of the sort of slander that would get folks sued in any other context.  For example:

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.

“The Vatican is at the root of this problem,” said Colm O’Gorman, an outspoken victim of abuse in Ireland who is now director of Amnesty International there. “Any suggestion that they have not deliberately and willfully been instructing bishops not to report priests to appropriate civil authorities is now proven to be ridiculous.”

It’s these allegations that are ridiculous. Read the document, and point to anywhere – anywhere – where bishops are “deliberately and willfully” instructed “not to report priests to appropriate civil authorities.” You won’t find it, because it’s not there. Likewise, you’ll find nothing impeding criminal investigations, because the question was on whether the bishops should create a new policy, not on whether they should report sex abuse.

Update: By the way, both Jimmy Akin and GetReligion have good explanations of what actually happened, and why the media is creating a story out of whole cloth here.  GetReligion also links to the original version of the article, which is just shockingly bad. It actually claimed that that the letter said that “the bishops must handle all accusations through internal church channels,” and that disobedient bishops could “face repercussions when their abuse cases were heard in Rome.”  This lie got traded out for O’Gorman’s lie when they rewrote the article.  (As usual, the Times completely overhauled the article without so much as a correction or apology at the bottom explaining how badly mangled their initial claims were).

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