The Vatican today disputed allegations it ordered Irish bishops in 1997 not to report paedophile priests to the authorities.
A strictly confidential letter leaked by a bishop revealed the Catholic hierarchy had serious reservations about mandatory reporting of child sex abuse cases to the gardaí.
Federico Lombardi, spokesman for the Holy See, claimed the edict was not intended to give church rules priority over civil law.
“It must be noted that the letter does not in any way suggest that national laws must not be followed,” Rev Lombardi said.
“Furthermore, the letter rightly emphasises the importance of always respecting canonical legislation, precisely in order to ensure that guilty parties do not have justified grounds for an appeal and thus producing a result contrary to the one desired.”
The letter, from Archbishop Luciano Storero, apostolic nuncio to Ireland at the time, was central to a documentary aired on RTE on Monday night.
The programme also reported that an unnamed Irish bishop described the Vatican directive as “a mandate ... to conceal the reported crimes of a priest”.
It was sent more than a year after Irish bishops produced the “Green Book” on the handling of child sex abuse cases and which recommended all allegations of clerical paedophilia be reported to the civil authorities.
The documentary also claimed that at a 1999 meeting in Rome a senior Vatican official told the Irish Catholic hierarchy they were “bishops first, not policemen”.
The letter expressed “serious reservations of a canonical and moral nature” about the mandatory reporting of child sex abuse crimes involving priests to civil authorities.
Rev Lombardi added: “It must be stated that the letter was written prior to the norms of 2001 which unified responsibility in this field under the jurisdiction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a move which has certainly led to clearer guidelines and more effective procedures.”
Pope Benedict was head of that division of the Holy See at the time.
Rev Lombardi also went on to say that the letter was written on the basis of indications received from the Congregation for the Clergy, which at the time dealt with child sex abuse allegations in the church.
He claimed: “That letter has been given biased treatment by some media outlets, who have presented it as proof of an instruction, from the Vatican, to cover up cases of sexual abuse of minors.”