Archbishop of Dublin Dr Diarmuid Martin today rejected claims Pope Benedict XVI led a systematic cover-up of child sex abuse by Catholic priests.
Following shocking allegations in a television programme that the Pontiff helped protect paedophile clerics, the Archbishop said investigations had not been hindered.
The documentary claimed the Pope, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, threatened all witnesses to such abuse with excommunication if they reported the crime to state, or other non-Church, bodies.
But Archbishop Martin said the Pope had in fact played a huge part in dealing openly with abuse cases.
He said the documentary highlighted the evil of sex abuse and the trauma and suffering it inflicts on children.
But he insisted: “What the programme did not do on the other hand was to show any direct connection between the Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger, and these particular cases.
“My experience is in fact that particularly the intervention of Cardinal Ratzinger in the beginning in 2001 has actually introduced a common form of practice by the church around the world and has actually been a positive intervention.”
The Archbishop told RTÉ Radio the idea was to let churches deal with sex abuse cases at a local level, but ensure that common standards were adopted around the world.
He admitted: “The difficulties came in fact when there was a sort of vacuum in the application of terms.”
Archbishop Martin denied there was a secrecy policy and he also rejected the alarming allegation in the documentary that clerics were sworn to secrecy if they became aware of sex abuse.
The programme makers examined a secret document that apparently sets out a procedure for dealing with child sex abuse scandals within the Catholic Church.
It claimed the document – Crimen Sollicitationis – was enforced for 20 years by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before he became the Pope.
The 39-page document, written in 1962, apparently instructed bishops how to deal with claims of child sex abuse.
This includes an oath of secrecy, enforceable by excommunication, which critics claimed could hinder an outside investigation and prosecution.
Expert Father Tom Doyle, a canon solicitor sacked from the Vatican after he criticised its handling of child abuse, interpreted the document for the BBC.
He said it was an explicit written policy to cover up cases of child abuse that emphasised the total control of the Vatican and gave no mention to the victims.
But the Catholic Church said the document was not directly concerned with child abuse at all, but with the misuse of the confessional.
It added that the second document, issued in 2001, clarified the law of the Church and does not hinder the investigation of allegations of child abuse.
Archbishop Martin said Cardinal Ratzinger was instrumental in this, but he accepted that there were failings.
“The sad thing about it is that it was not really applied and there was a vacuum of norms particularly in the 70s and 80s which led in fact to greater laxity,” Dr Martin said.
But Colm O’Gorman, founder of charity One in Four and himself abused by a priest, called on the church to introduce mandatory child protection policies.
“It is simply not credible to suggest that the Vatican, and in particular Pope Benedict XIV as Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Church, bear no responsibility for the ongoing sexual abuse of children by priests in Catholic dioceses across the world,” Mr O’Gorman said.