VATICAN CITY -- In a yet another revelation in the clergy sex abuse scandal, a French Catholic news service has published a 2001 letter from a top Vatican official praising a French bishop who covered up for a priest he knew had molested numerous boys.
In October 2000, Father René Bissey was sentenced to 18 years in jail for sexually abusing 11 boys between 1989 and 1996. Bissey's bishop, Pierre Pican of the Diocese of Bayeux-Lisieux, had known of the abuse but refused to report Bissey to French authorities and instead sent him for psychiatric treatment.
Pican's actions resulted in his own conviction in 2001 for "failure to report a sex crime against a minor younger than 15 years old." The bishop was sentenced to three months in prison.
That sentence led Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, then head of the Vatican's Congregation for Clergy -- the department overseeing Catholic clergy policies around the world -- to write Bishop Pican a letter effusively praising his actions in shielding the abusive priest. At the time, Castrillon Hoyos was a colleague of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- now Pope Benedict XVI.
"I congratulate you on not having reported a priest to the civil authorities," Castrillon Hoyos wrote to Pican on Sept. 8, 2001. "You have done well, and I rejoice at having an associate in the episcopate who, in the eyes of history and of all the others bishops of the world, will have chosen prison rather than speaking out against his priest-son."
Castrillon Hoyos added that he would send a copy of the letter to all the bishops' conferences "to encourage the brothers in the episcopate in this very delicate area."
on March 30, but it began making waves on Thursday, prompting a late evening statement from the Vatican's chief spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi. Lombardi said the letter from Castrillon Hoyos underscored how important it was that earlier in 2001 all clergy abuse cases were ordered to come under the jurisdiction of the Vatican's doctrinal office, which was then headed by Cardinal Ratzinger, who was elected pope five years ago this month.
Lombardi took the unusual step of effectively throwing Castrillon Hoyos -- a once-influential prelate who retired from his last senior Vatican position in 2009 -- under the bus to highlight Benedict's actions.
The Castrillon Hoyos letter praising Bishop Pican "is another confirmation of how timely was the unification of the treatment of cases of sexual abuse of minors on the part of members of the clergy under the competence of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith," said the Vatican statement in a translation by National Catholic Reporter
. That move assured "a rigorous and coherent management" of abuse cases, the statement said.
As a wave of revelations of past abuses swept Europe in recent weeks, Ratzinger's track record on cracking down on abusers has come in for sharp scrutiny, with reports suggesting that he was slow to move against abusers when cases came before him from 1980 up through the early 2000s.
Many of the pope's defenders in the hierarchy, especially here in the Roman Curia, have denounced such claims, and the Vatican has pointed to the late Pope John Paul II's decision to consolidate all abuse cases under Ratzinger as evidence of Ratzinger's effectiveness on the issue. They say that since his election as pope on April 19, 2005, Benedict has continued to be vigilant.
The Vatican has been scrambling to get ahead of a cycle of bad press that has raised serious questions about how it has dealt with abuse cases around the world, and what it plans to do in the future.
Earlier this week, the Vatican published on its Web site a list of papal statements and documents aimed at showing that the church has been active in ferreting out abusers. The documents included a guide
to understanding Vatican procedures on dealing with abusive priests that for the first time explicitly stated that abusers who have committed crimes should be reported to the civil authorities.
The phrase on reporting was a last-minute addition to the list, and it was unclear how much weight the Vatican intended to give to the guidelines, though officials insist the church has always encouraged bishops to follow relevant civil and criminal laws on reporting.
But the Castrillon Hoyos letter on the French case shows that not everyone got the memo.
Whether Ratzinger himself was on board with mandatory reporting to authorities is also unclear.
In February 2002, Ratzinger's top lieutenant at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, said new internal church norms he and Ratzinger just completed to help bishops deal with abusers would not compel them to hand over molesters.
"It seems to me that there is no basis for demanding that a bishop, for example, be obliged to turn to civil magistrates and denounce a priest that has confided in him to have committed the crime of pedophilia," Bertone told the Italian Catholic monthly, 30 Giorni.
After Ratzinger was elected pope, he made Bertone a cardinal and named him his secretary of state, basically the second-in-command at the Vatican. But Bertone has continued to create more controversy, such as this week when he argued that homosexuality is a cause of pedophilia.
In a related development Thursday, Benedict himself seemed to signal a softer line as he delivered a homily at a Mass in the Vatican in which he said the church must do penance because it leads to purification:
"I must say that we Christians, even in recent times, have often avoided the word 'penance,' which seemed too harsh to us," the pope said
. "Now, under the attacks of the world that speak to us of our sins, we see that being able to do penance is a grace.
"We see how it is necessary to do penance, that is, to recognize what is mistaken in our life."
Benedict's words, delivered without notes in the Pauline Chapel of the Apostolic Palace, were the closest he has come to addressing the scandal. And it was the most conciliatory note struck by a senior Vatican official of late.
Yet the pope also had some tough words for the church's critics, saying that while the Nazi and Marxist dictatorships no longer exist as they did in the last century, there are other pressures on people to conform to a single worldview:
"A conformism under which it becomes obligatory to think as everyone thinks, to act as everyone acts, and the subtle or not so subtle aggression against the church demonstrate that this conformism really can become a real dictatorship," he said.