|Victims' groups say the letter reveals a Vatican-led culture of covering up suspected child abuse by priests [AFP]
Irish broadcaster RTE has uncovered a 1997 letter from the Vatican discouraging Ireland's Catholic bishops from reporting on all suspected child-abuse cases to police.
The letter, revealed on Wednesday, documents the church's emphasis on handling all child-abuse allegations and the determination of punishments within the church instead of delegating that responsibility over to civil authorities.
Signed by the late Archbishop Luciano Storero, Pope John Paul II's diplomat to Ireland, the letter came a year after the Vatican's rejection of a 1996 Irish church initiative to assist police in identifying alleged pedophile priests with Ireland's first wave of publicly disclosed lawsuits.
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, Storero wrote.
In a statement issued by the Vatican on Wednesday, Reverend Federico Lombardi said: "This circumstance brings about serious problems of a moral and canonical nature that require extreme prudence with the question of mandatory reporting."
Child-abuse activists in Ireland said the disclosed document demonstrates that the protection of pedophile priests from criminal investigation was not only sanctioned by Vatican leaders but also ordered by them.
Joelle Casteix, a director of the US advocacy group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, described the letter as "the smoking gun we've been looking for."
She said the letter was certain to be cited by victims' lawyers seeking to pin responsibility directly on the Vatican rather than local dioceses.
"We now have evidence that the Vatican deliberately intervened to order bishops not to turn pedophile priests over to law enforcement," Casteix 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," she said.
Jeffrey Lena, the Vatican's US lawyer, said the letter did no such thing.
"The letter nowhere instructed Irish bishops to disregard civil law reporting requirements," he said in a statement.
Al Jazeera's Tania Paige reporting from London, said: "For the Vatican's part, they say the letter was written a long time ago and that the document was not a policy but a study draft.
"Yet without a doubt, the document will do them more harm at a time when they don't need it."
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 $2 billion to more than 14,000 abuse claimants dating back to the 1940s.
In a 2010 pastoral letter to Ireland's Catholics, 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.
But in his January 1997 letter, Storero told 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 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, which oversees matters regarding priests and deacons not belonging to religious orders.
Colm O'Gorman, the Ireland director of Amnesty International, said: "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."
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.
Today, the Vatican's child-protection policies remain in legal limbo.
While the Vatican does advise bishops worldwide to report crimes to police in a legally nonbinding guide on its website, this recourse was omitted from the official legal advice provided by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and updated last summer.
However, the powerful policymaking body continues to stress the secrecy of canon law.