The revelation is timely for Irish Catholic bishops, but 14 years too late for many people. Last week's expose on RTE smacked of spin by the Irish hierarchy, now under investigation by envoys from Pope Benedict.
Basing its investigation on a 1997 letter from senior Vatican officials, marked "strictly confidential" but recently leaked, RTE last week pointed a finger at Rome. It exaggerated by claiming that, "the Vatican prevented Irish bishops from removing abuser priests and reporting them to the authorities".
But what one of the Vatican's departments did do was bad enough. It put pressure on individual Irish bishops not to implement a guideline that Ireland's Cardinal Daly had said publicly had been agreed by the hierarchy. That guideline should have meant that all serious allegations of child abuse would be reported to the gardai.
Irish bishops now fear that they alone may be blamed for the child abuse scandal. They wonder if a report being prepared for publication by those papal envoys will ignore Rome's role in the mess.
Thanks to RTE, it will now be much harder for the Pope's envoys to be harshly critical of the Irish if they are not also critical of the Vatican. However, his envoys could be tempted to take an easier option by back-peddling their criticisms of both parties. That would be yet another disservice to the abused and to the faithful.
Anyone unfamiliar with the history of ineptitude and "mental reservation" that has marked the Irish hierarchy's handling of child abuse may have formed the impression, watching RTE's Would You Believe, that the Irish hierarchy had done the best that it possibly could. We even heard about Irish bishops standing up to Rome -- always behind closed doors, of course.
Bishop Michael Smith told RTE's Mick Peelo about a meeting in Sligo between representatives of Rome and Maynooth, at which, he indicated, there were unprecedented tensions and great unhappiness. Even Cardinal Desmond Connell got to look good, being said to have pressed the Vatican to take decisive action when Rome was stalling on the suspension of an abusive priest.
At their very public press conference in 1996, the hierarchy made great play of a report commissioned for them, entitled Child Sexual Abuse: Framework for a Church Response. Cardinal Daly confirmed that bishops had decided to report all serious cases of abuse in the future. But if this looked like a new policy of mandatory reporting of abuse crimes in each diocese, it was not quite what it seemed.
An unsuspecting public was scarcely aware of the distinction between the hierarchy as a body (with little legal power as a group within the Church) and individual bishops (who have real power and are answerable only to the Pope). The Vatican department known as the Congregation for the Clergy knew the difference, and played on it. In 1997, on its behalf, the Pope's representative in Ireland wrote to each Irish bishop, stating that mandatory reporting "gives rise to serious reservations of both a moral and a canonical nature".
The Pope's man in Dublin, Papal Nuncio Archbishop Luciano Storero, also pointed out that the Framework report for Irish bishops was "not an official document of the Episcopal Conference but merely a study document", and added, "I am directed to inform the individual Bishops of Ireland of the preoccupations of the Congregation in that regard." He also asked that each bishop individually acknowledge receipt of his letter.
Even more intimidating was a curiously constructed but unmistakeable threat that, "in the said cases of accusations of sexual abuse by clerics, the procedures established by the Code of Canon law must be meticulously followed under pain of invalidity of the acts involved if the priest so punished were to make hierarchical recourse against the Bishop". The abuser, not the abused, had priority of esteem.
Some Vatican observers last week argued that the letter merely conveyed an expression of opinion from one papal department which the bishops were free to ignore. But Irish bishops were unlikely to have seen it quite so simply, and such an argument depends more on the making of nice legalistic distinctions than on the real politics of Rome.
Few if any bishops were willing to alienate Rome, either from a sense of loyalty or a fear of giving public scandal or their own self-interest. But, as individual citizens, they were free moral agents and nobody "prevented Irish bishops from removing abuser priests and reporting them to the authorities" had they wished to do so. They could have courageously faced the wrath of Rome instead of simply following orders.
RTE's programme was worthwhile and well-made. But its timing also happens to suit Irish bishops. The Vatican, secretive and unaccountable to its faithful as ever, refused to take part. In a statement about the letter last week, it tried to suggest unconvincingly that this was old news and that the letter did not constitute an attempt to deter the reporting of crimes.
The papal visitors currently in Ireland need to avoid manipulation by any vested interests if their report is to be honest. Their terms of reference should be interpreted as broadly as possible to paint the fullest picture.
It is not clear what documents, articles and books have been provided to the papal envoys, although it is thought that even as basic a critique as the collection of essays edited by Eamon Maher and John Littleton, The Dublin/Murphy Report: A watershed for Irish Catholicism? (Columba Press), was not brought to their attention at the outset.
There is a danger that, divided between four dioceses, the envoys will find it hard to form a comprehensive understanding of where both the Irish hierarchy and the Vatican went so very wrong.