VATICAN CITY -- Chafing under extraordinary criticism, the Vatican made the rare move of recalling its ambassador to Ireland on Monday following accusations that the Holy See sabotaged efforts by Catholic bishops to report clerical sex abuse cases to police.
A Vatican spokesman said Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza was recalled to help prepare an official response to Irish complaints, but that the decision "does not exclude some degree of surprise and disappointment at certain excessive reactions."
The spokesman, the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, acknowledged the recall of an ambassador was a measure rarely used by the Holy See, underlining "the seriousness of the situation."
The deepening crisis follows a July 13 report that the Irish diocese of Cloyne failed to act on complaints against 19 priests from 1996 to 2009. It further alleged the Vatican encouraged bishops to ignore child-protection guidelines including the requirement that abuse claims be reported to civil authorities.
Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore had summoned papal ambassador Leanza and demanded an official response from the Vatican. The Vatican has said it will issue one at the "opportune time," but has not done so yet.
Gilmore, who is also deputy prime minister, said Monday that the recall was "a matter for the Holy See," saying in a statement that "it is to be expected that the Vatican would wish to consult in depth with the nuncio on its response."
Repercussions from the long-running scandal have grown increasingly bitter, with Ireland's lawmakers making an unprecedented denunciation of the Holy See's influence in the predominantly Catholic country.
Prime Minister Enda Kenny denounced to lawmakers last week what he called "the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism – and the narcissism – that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day."
It was the first time in the past 17 years of pedophile-priest scandals in Ireland that parliamentarians have taken on the Vatican rather than local church leaders. Revelations of widespread abuse 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.
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.
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.
The Vatican's spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi last week promised to respond and expressed hope the debate on the scandals will play out "objectively" and restore a climate of trust in the church and Irish society.