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Father Lombardi said the 1997 letter represented the “distant past” and was never intended to undermine the Irish church’s crime-reporting commitments then or now. He made similar arguments when the AP published the letter in January.

“There is absolutely nothing in the letter that is an invitation to disregard the laws of the country,” Father Lombardi’s statement said.

But Justice Minister Alan Shatter dismissed Father Lombardi’s statement as “unfortunate and disingenuous.”

Mr. Shatter said the 1997 letter “greatly strengthened the position” of Irish bishops who wanted to keep scandals in-house. He called on the Vatican to provide “an absolute assurance” that it now requires its bishops to report all suspected child-abuse cases to police immediately.

The 1997 letter, from the Rome-based Congregation for the Clergy and the Vatican’s then-ambassador to Ireland, represented the Holy See’s official response to the Irish bishops’ child-protection policy. Irish leaders had sought Vatican approval.

Instead, the letter warned that the new Irish rules enjoyed no legal standing in the Vatican because they violated canon law, while bishops who observed the Irish rules would risk the embarrassment of having their decisions to defrock or otherwise punish priests overturned in Rome.

Several lawmakers in Wednesday’s debate said Ireland should expel the pope’s ambassador and cut diplomatic ties. Mr. Gilmore has said such actions would be counterproductive.

Until now, the Vatican line never has conceded that its officials played any role in covering up crimes in Ireland. It has rebuffed requests for cooperation from four government-ordered investigations and a parliamentary committee over the past decade.

Even when Benedict delivered a March 2010 letter to the Irish people expressing sorrow and denouncing child abusers, he emphasized enforcement of the church’s canon laws as the solution. He didn’t mention or endorse any of the Irish church’s three child-protection policy documents that emphasize the reporting of crimes to police.