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Rift Grows Between Ireland, Vatican Over Priest Abuse Allegations

July 26, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
The breach between the Vatican and Ireland grew even wider Monday when the Vatican recalled its Ambassador to Ireland, Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza. Ray Suarez discusses the growing division over the handling of sexual-abuse claims with RTE's Richard Downes.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, the breach between the Vatican and one of the most Catholic countries in Europe, Ireland. It grew even wider yesterday after a dramatic move by Rome.

Ray Suarez has our story.

RAY SUAREZ: The Vatican’s move to recall its ambassador, Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza, was highly unusual. The archbishop was summoned back to the church’s headquarters after the Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny sharply denounced the way the Vatican dealt with repeated child sex abuse scandals.

Ireland is 87 percent Catholic. In an attack on the church unprecedented for an Irish prime minister, Kenny told his Parliament, “The rape and torture of children were downplayed or managed to uphold instead the primacy of the institution in power, standing and reputation.”

His comments come on the heels of a judicial report released two weeks ago which revealed the Vatican secretly discouraged Irish bishops from reporting pedophile priests to police, as was demanded by the Dublin government. The report also suggested the Diocese of Cloyne in County Cork failed to act on the allegations against 19 priests between 1996 and 2009.

The Vatican says Archbishop Leanza, also known as the papal nuncio, was recalled to help prepare an official response to Irish complaints. But in a statement, the Holy See said its action “denotes the seriousness of the situation,” as well as “surprise and regret at certain excessive reactions.”

For more, we’re joined by Richard Downes, the Washington correspondent for RTE, Ireland’s national television station.

And, Richard, did the Cloyne report, the examination of this one diocese in Ireland, show that the church there was covering up accusations of priestly child abuse, in contravention of what they said they were going to do?

RICHARD DOWNES, RTE: Yes and no.

Yes, they were. And, no, it was not a surprise to anybody. We have had the Ferns report. We have had reports on the Christian Brothers in Ireland. We have had reports on the Magdalene Sisters in Ireland, many reports going back 20, 25, 30 years. And each one has shown that the priests and the bishops of particular orders of diocese have covered up and have tried to dissuade the authorities from getting involved, the official legal authorities from getting involved.

But lots of people in Ireland, I think the majority of Irish people, assumed that this was somehow in the past, that this was to do with the legacy of a very heavy-handed Catholic Church and the legacy of a very light-handed government authority.

But the Cloyne report actually goes up to 2009. And it shows that even up until the last few years, the Catholic Church and indeed the Vatican in its dealings with the Catholic Church has not been up front and 100 percent honest with the authorities. That was the comment of the judge, the independent judge who made the investigation.

And, of course, it led to the extraordinary statement that you heard there from the prime minister, from the taoiseach of Ireland, saying that the Vatican downplayed or managed the rape and abuse of children, an extraordinary thing to say.

And, of course, the reason why it’s significant is not just that it’s one country, Ireland, describing another country. The Vatican, technically, it’s another country in this respect. But it’s also pointing the finger at the church in general, not just in Ireland, but also internationally, saying Catholicism is — has a deep problem to deal with.

RAY SUAREZ: We saw that just small excerpt of what was a scathing statement from the prime minister in parliament, then echoed by the attorney general, the minister for children.

Does this represent a change in the way Ireland regards its relationship with the Roman Catholic Church?

RICHARD DOWNES: I think, if it does, it’s a change that has been a very long time in coming.

This whole episode, this whole series of episodes started about 20, 25 years ago with a number of books, and then a television series on our own television station exposing the cruelty and the torture of children that went on in a number of institutions.

Up until about 10, 15 years ago, a number of people, including a number of the clerics involved, they were kind of able to say, look, this is an isolated thing, it’s a thing in the past. But as time has gone on, it has become clear and abundantly clear that such was the power of the Catholic Church in Ireland that they were able to — that a number of people or, in particular, sick individuals, you could say, within that institution were able to continue the abuse right up until very recently, and, according to the Cloyne report, up until very recent times.

But now nobody can be in any doubt. The number of reports, the number of investigations has been so extensive, that, you know, it would be a fool who would — who would disagree with them and try to play them down.

So, yes, it is. It’s a watershed. But there are still many, many other investigations to happen. This is just one diocese in one corner of Ireland. Donegal has to happen. There’s also talk of an inquiry into the Diocese of Galway. So, yes, we’re going to have more of these reports.

RAY SUAREZ: In the Cloyne report, a senior cleric notes that he realized what a problem the church in Ireland had when he started to read reports about the priestly abuse in Canada, in the United States, in Australia. And it struck him that these were Irish-ordained, Irish-born priests. So there is a connection to the scandal in the rest of the world?

RICHARD DOWNES: Absolutely. There’s a connection to the scandal here in the United States. Recently, my own television station had a long documentary about priests and alleged abuse in Africa. Of course, many Irish priests went abroad.

We produced a massive surplus of priests of Christian Brothers, of brothers, of nuns, who many, of course, it should be said, went and did great work abroad. But, of course, we exported a type of Catholicism that for whatever reason — and that hasn’t been really clarified yet — created this kind of sexual abuse monster.

And it happened in the United States. It happened in Canada. It happened in Australia. It happened in New Zealand. It’s very familiar. The names are Irish. The modus operandi of the abusers involved was exactly the same, whether it was Galway, Cloyne, New Zealand, or the United States.

So it was something that we did and something that happened out of Ireland, if you like, that came out of Ireland, which is undeniable and very recognizable.

RAY SUAREZ: The Vatican pulling back its nuncio is a very unusual step, as we noted. What about the Vatican reaction to Irish rage at this? What has the church been saying?

RICHARD DOWNES: It’s been very interesting, hasn’t it, watching the Vatican’s reaction.

Many people in Ireland are outraged by what the Vatican has done, because, technically and on legal grounds, the Vatican is a country. But people in Ireland know that it is the representation of the Catholic Church internationally. And many people in Ireland feel that Archbishop Leanza, who is the papal nuncio, the representative of the Vatican in Ireland, and the Vatican have been parsing and analyzing and being very legalistic in their approach.

For example, there was a request of the Vatican in a previous inquiry that they come up with some information about a particular abuser and a particular series of abusers in the past. And the Vatican didn’t respond to that particular request because it didn’t go through the diplomatic channels of the papal nuncio and then going back to Rome and all the rest.

So, the problem is, the Irish people feel that the Vatican has been very legalistic, although the Vatican say that they have just been following it straight down the line in relation to the diplomatic norms that they have to follow.

RAY SUAREZ: Richard Downes from RTE, thanks a lot.