DUBLIN (AP) — The Vatican encouraged Catholic bishops not to tell police about suspected pedophile priests and flouted Irish law, Ireland's lawmakers declared Wednesday in an unprecedented denunciation of the Holy See's influence in this predominantly Catholic country.
The government and all opposition parties unanimously backed a motion accusing the Vatican of sabotaging the Irish bishops' 1996 decision to begin reporting suspected cases of child abuse to police.
"This is not Rome. This is the Republic of Ireland 2011, a republic of laws," Prime Minister Enda Kenny told lawmakers.
In a direct challenge to the Vatican, Mr. Kenny denounced what he called "the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism — and the narcissism — that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day."
He said the church's leaders repeatedly sought to defend their institutions at the expense of children and to "parse and analyze" every revelation of church cover-up of crimes "with the gimlet eye of a canon lawyer."
Wednesday marked the first time that Ireland's parliament has lambasted the Vatican, rather than local church leaders, over the past 17 years of pedophile-priest scandals in Ireland. Those revelations have eroded Catholic authority in a nation where the church still owns most schools and several hospitals, and state broadcasters still toll a twice-daily call to Catholic prayer.
Tensions have flared this month between Ireland and the Vatican over the latter's refusal to cooperate with a decade of government-ordered investigations here into the church's chronic concealment of child abuse by its employees. The latest report, published last week, pointed an official finger of blame at the Vatican.
A confidential 1997 Vatican letter — originally published by the Associated Press in January — instructed Irish bishops to handle child-abuse cases strictly under terms of canon law. It warned bishops that their 1996 child-protection policy, particularly its emphasis on the need to start reporting all suspected crimes to police, violated canon law.
Mr. Kenny said Catholic canon law had "neither legitimacy nor [a] place in the affairs of this country." He pledged to press ahead with new laws making it a crime to withhold evidence of child abuse — even if the information was attained during a priest's confession. The Catholic Church insists that the contents of confessions must never be revealed.
Last week's report highlighted the Vatican letter's contents and concluded that they encouraged Irish bishops to maintain secrecy and ignore the new crime-reporting rules.
The judge-led investigation documented how one diocese in County Cork run by Bishop John Magee, a former private secretary to three popes, suppressed evidence of child rape and molestation as recently as 2009. That year, the first investigation by a new Irish church-funded investigations unit exposed some of Bishop Magee's wrongdoing. Pope Benedict XVI accepted his resignation last year.
Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore last week summoned the pope's ambassador to Ireland, Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza, and demanded an official response from the Vatican, which has yet to come.
Wednesday's motion said the parliament "deplores the Vatican's intervention, which contributed to the undermining of the child protection frameworks and guidelines of the Irish state and the Irish bishops."
Lawmakers' only criticism of the motion was that it wasn't hard enough. Several said the government should have used the word "condemn" rather than "deplore."
Before the parliamentary debate, the Catholic press office circulated what was billed as a private statement from the Vatican's chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi. He said the Vatican still was formulating an official response to the week-old report.
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.