Ireland Confronts the Vatican

New York Times Op-Ed
July 14, 2011

Throughout the long scandal of sexual abuse by rogue priests, the Vatican has blatantly resisted the idea that civil law must trump church rules in confronting criminal acts. This was evident again in the revelation that the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland continued to cover up abuse cases long after it had issued rules to protect children in 1996.

"The law of the land should not be stopped by crosier or by collar," Prime Minister Enda Kenny declared after receiving a detailed report on Wednesday showing that abuses were occurring as recently as 2009.

A principal factor in the cover-up, the government study found, was a Vatican letter in 1997 warning Irish church leaders against full cooperation with law enforcement authorities. The papal representative wrote that the anti-abuse policies conflicted with church law and should be considered "merely a study document."

This turned criminal law on its head and, as the study noted, gave bishops "freedom to ignore" the tougher rules and protect abusers in the church. In the diocese of Cloyne, investigated in detail by the Dublin government, church officials did not act on complaints against 19 priests in the 13 years after the rules were put in place.

The new findings showed that the abuse was not confined to previous generations. "This is about Ireland now," said Frances Fitzgerald, Ireland's minister for children. As usual, apologies were offered, this time by John Magee, the longtime bishop of Cloyne, who resigned last year. Bishop Magee had been accused of improperly embracing a seminarian, but that allegation was dismissed.

With the pedophilia scandal under investigation worldwide, Vatican officials point to new, tougher rules. But the rules, which do not require dioceses to report allegations of crimes to the police, are considered only advisory guidelines to bishops. The Dublin government has enacted a new law making it a crime for anyone, church officials included, to fail to report child abuse to civil authorities. The Vatican has a valuable lesson to learn in Ireland.