Dublin, Ireland - A 1997 letter from the Vatican warned Ireland's Catholic bishops not to report all suspected child-abuse cases to police - a disclosure that victims' groups described as "the smoking gun" needed to show that the church enforced a worldwide culture of covering up crimes by pedophile priests.
The newly revealed letter, obtained by Irish broadcasters RTE and provided to The Associated Press, documents the Vatican's rejection of a 1996 Irish church initiative to begin helping police identify pedophile priests following Ireland's first wave of publicly disclosed lawsuits.
The letter undermines persistent Vatican claims, particularly when seeking to defend itself in U.S. lawsuits, that Rome never instructed local bishops to withhold evidence or suspicion of crimes from police. It instead emphasizes the church's right to handle all child-abuse allegations and determine punishments in house rather than give that power to civil authorities.
Signed by the late Archbishop Luciano Storero, Pope John Paul II's diplomat to Ireland, the letter instructs Irish bishops that their new policy of making the reporting of suspected crimes mandatory "gives rise to serious reservations of both a moral and canonical nature."
Storero wrote that canon law, which required abuse allegations and punishments to be handled within the church, "must be meticulously followed." Any bishops who tried to impose punishments outside the confines of canon law would face the "highly embarrassing" position of having their actions overturned on appeal in Rome, he wrote.
Catholic officials in Ireland and the Vatican declined AP requests to comment on the letter, which RTE said it received from an Irish bishop.
Child-abuse activists in Ireland said the 1997 letter demonstrates that the protection of pedophile priests from criminal investigation was not only sanctioned by Vatican leaders but ordered by them.
"The letter is of huge international significance, because it shows that the Vatican's intention is to prevent reporting of abuse to criminal authorities. And if that instruction applied here, it applied everywhere," said Colm O'Gorman, director of the Irish chapter of human rights watchdog Amnesty International.
Joelle Casteix, a director of U.S. advocacy group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, described the letter as "the smoking gun we've been looking for."
Casteix said it was certain to be cited by victims' lawyers seeking to pin responsibility directly on the Vatican rather than local dioceses. She said investigators long have sought such a document showing Vatican pressure on a group of bishops "thwarting any kind of justice for victims."
"We now have evidence that the Vatican deliberately intervened to order bishops not to turn pedophile priests over to law enforcement," she said. "And for civil lawsuits, this letter shows what victims have been saying for dozens and dozens of years: What happened to them involved a concerted cover-up that went all the way to the top."
To this day, the Vatican has not endorsed any of the Irish church's three major policy documents since 1996 on safeguarding children from clerical abuse. Irish taxpayers, rather than the church, have paid most of the euro1.5 billion ($2 billion) to more than 14,000 abuse claimants dating back to the 1940s.
In his 2010 pastoral letter to Ireland's Catholics condemning pedophiles in the ranks, Pope Benedict XVI faulted bishops for failing to follow canon law and offered no explicit endorsement of Irish child-protection efforts by the Irish church or state. Benedict was widely criticized in Ireland for failing to admit any Vatican role in covering up the truth.
O'Gorman - who was raped repeatedly by an Irish priest in the 1980s when he was an altar boy and was among the first victims to speak out in the mid-1990s - said evidence is growing that some Irish bishops continued to follow the 1997 Vatican instructions and withheld reports of crimes against children as recently as 2008.
Two state-commissioned reports published in 2009 - into the Dublin Archdiocese and workhouse-style Catholic institutions for children - unveiled decades of cover-ups of abuse involving tens of thousands of Irish children since the 1930s.
A third major state-ordered investigation into Catholic abuse cover-ups, concerning the southwest Irish Diocese of Cloyne, is expected to be published in the next few months documenting the concealment of crimes as recently as 2008.
Irish church leaders didn't begin telling police about suspected pedophile priests until the mid-1990s after the first major scandal - involving the Rev. Brendan Smyth, who had raped dozens of children while the church transferred him to parishes in Dublin, Belfast, Rhode Island and North Dakota - triggered the collapse of the Irish government. That national shock, in turn, inspired the first victims to begin suing the church publicly.
In January 1996, Irish bishops published a groundbreaking policy document spelling out their newfound determination to report all suspected abuse cases to police.
But in his January 1997 letter seen Tuesday by the AP, Storero told the bishops that a senior church panel in Rome, the Congregation for the Clergy, had decided that the Irish church's policy of "mandatory" reporting of abuse claims conflicted with canon law.
Storero emphasized in the letter that the Irish church's policy was not recognized by the Vatican and was "merely a study document."
Storero warned that bishops who followed the Irish child-protection policy and reported a priest's suspected crimes to police risked having their in-house punishments of the priest overturned by the Congregation for the Clergy.
The 2009 Dublin Archdiocese report found that this actually happened in the case of Tony Walsh, one of Dublin's most notorious pedophiles, who used his role as an Elvis impersonator in a popular "All Priests Show" to get closer to kids.
Walsh was kicked out of the priesthood by a secret Dublin church court in 1993 but successfully appealed the punishment to a Vatican court, which reinstated him to the priesthood in 1994. He raped a boy in a pub restroom at his grandfather's wake that year. Walsh since has received a series of prison sentences, most recently a 12-year term imposed last month. Investigators estimate he raped or molested more than 100 children.
Storero's 1997 letter - originally obtained by the RTE religious affairs program "Would You Believe?" - said the Congregation for the Clergy was pursuing "a global study" of sexual-abuse policies and would establish worldwide child-protection policies "at the appropriate time."
Today, the Vatican's child-protection policies remain in legal limbo.
The Vatican does advise bishops worldwide to report crimes to police - in a legally nonbinding guide on its website. This recourse is omitted from the official legal advice provided by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and updated last summer. That powerful policymaking body continues to stress the secrecy of canon law.
The central message of Storero's letter was reported secondhand in the 2009 Dublin Archdiocese report. The letter itself, marked "strictly confidential," has never been published before.