VATICAN CITY A Vatican cardinal in charge of clergy around the world congratulated a French bishop in a 2001 letter for not denouncing a sexually abusive priest to the police, according to a French website on Thursday.
The letter posted by Golias, a critical lay Roman Catholic magazine based in Lyon, is the most explicit of a wave of recently published internal church documents in showing past Vatican encouragement to cover up sexual abuse by priests.
In the letter dated Sept 8, 2001, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos backed French Bishop Pierre Pican's decision not to denounce a priest who was later sentenced to 18 years in jail for repeated rape of a boy and sexual assaults on 10 others.
Under fire in recent weeks for its secretive handling of abuse cases, the Vatican has insisted the fact that other published documents did not explicitly instruct bishops to inform police of abuse did not prove it told them to hide it.
Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi did not dispute the letter's content but said it confirmed "how opportune it was to centralize treatment of cases of sexual abuse of minors by clerics under the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith."
The then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, instructed Catholic bishops around the world on May 18, 2001 to report all case of clerical sexual abuse of minors to the Congregation, the top Vatican doctrinal office that he headed.
Pican, who received a suspended three-month jail sentence for not denouncing sexual abuse of minors, admitted in court he had kept Rev. Rene Bissey in parish work despite the fact the priest had privately admitted committing pedophile acts.
The case shocked France and prompted its bishops to declare that all abuse cases must be reported to civil authorities.
"I congratulate you for not denouncing a priest to the civil administration," Castrillon Hoyos said. "You have acted well and I am pleased to have a colleague in the episcopate who, in the eyes of history and of all other bishops in the world, preferred prison to denouncing his son and priest."
BISHOPS NOT REQUIRED TO INFORM POLICE
In it, the cardinal said relations between bishops and priests were not simply professional but had "very special links of spiritual paternity." Bishops therefore had no obligation to testify against "a direct relative," he stated.
The letter cited Vatican documents and an epistle of Saint Paul to bolster its argument about special bishop-priest links.
"To encourage brothers in the episcopate in this delicate domain, this Congregation will send copies of this letter to all bishops' conferences," Castrillon Hoyos wrote.
A staunch conservative from Colombia, the cardinal headed the Vatican department for priests from 1996 to 2006. From 2000 to 2009, he also ran a commission dealing with traditionalist rebels who broke from Rome in 1988 and were excommunicated.
He conducted the talks that led to the January 2009 decision to readmit the four banned bishops of the Society of Saint Pius X to the Church, which caused an uproar when it emerged that one of them, Richard Williamson, had denied the Holocaust.
The controversy was highly embarrassing to Pope Benedict, who said he did not know about Williamson's views, even though they could easily be found on the internet.
Two months after the incident, Benedict folded Castrillon Hoyos's commission into the Congregation and the cardinal retired.
On Thursday the pope said the church had to do penance for its sins, in a rare public reference to the pedophilia scandal.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)