VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican, reeling from unprecedented criticism over its handling of sexual abuse cases in Ireland, took a pre-emptive strike Wednesday and published some internal files about a priest accused of molesting youngsters in Ireland and the U.S.
The files published on the website of Vatican Radio represent a small, selective part of the documentation the Holy See must turn over to U.S. lawyers representing a man who says he was abused by the late Rev. Andrew Ronan. The man, known in court papers as John V. Doe, is seeking to hold the Vatican liable for the abuse.
A federal judge in Portland, Oregon, ordered the Vatican to respond to certain requests for information from Doe's lawyers by Friday, the first time the Holy See has been forced to turn over documentation in a sex abuse case.
The partial documentation released Wednesday includes the 1966 case file with Ronan's request to be laicized, or removed from the clerical state, after his superiors learned of accusations that he had molested minors in Ireland.
The Vatican said the files, a few dozen pages, some handwritten and culled from its internal books, represented the full, known documentation held in the Vatican specifically about Ronan. It said they prove that the Vatican only learned of Ronan's crimes in 1966 when his order sent Ronan's personnel files to Rome and asked the pope to remove him from the priesthood, a year after the abuse against Doe occurred.
More documentation is expected to be handed over to Doe's lawyers by Friday since the judge's discovery order also requires the Vatican to provide information about its general policies handling sex abuse cases and how it trains, educates, selects and removes priests. Much of it is expected to be in Latin.
The Vatican's decision to publish the Ronan discovery documentation online marked an unusual attempt at some transparency, particularly given the sensitivity surrounding internal personnel files of accused priests. Victims groups have long denounced the secrecy with which the Vatican handles abuse cases and demanded the files of known abusers be released.
But it comes amid unprecedented criticism of the Vatican's handling of sex abuse cases in Ireland, and as it still seeks to recover from the fallout over the abuse scandal that erupted last year. Thousands of people in Europe and elsewhere reported they were raped and molested by priests as children while bishops covered up the crimes and the Vatican turned a blind eye.
Last month, an independent report into the Irish diocese of Cloyne accused the Vatican of sabotaging efforts by Irish Catholic bishops to report clerical sex abuse cases to police. The accusations prompted Irish lawmakers to make an unprecedented denunciation of the Holy See's influence in the predominantly Catholic country, with heated words in particular from Prime Minister Enda Kenny.
In a statement accompanying the document release Wednesday, Vatican attorney Jeffrey Lena said the Vatican's documentation should help "calm down those people who are too quick to make sensational and unfair comments without taking the time to get an adequate understanding of the facts" – an apparent reference to Kenny's denunciation.
The Vatican recalled its ambassador to Ireland over the ruckus to help prepare an official response, which is expected in the coming weeks.
According to the Holy See, the documentation released Wednesday includes the 1966 case file held by the Vatican's office for members of religious orders, known at the time as the Sacred Congregation for Religious, containing documents in English, Italian and Latin related to Ronan's request to be laicized.
The file contains a 1963 letter written by the Chicago-based provincial of the Order of Servants of Mary to the order's headquarters in Rome detailing accusations that Ronan had abused students while he was a teacher at the Servites' Our Lady of Benburb Priory in Ireland.
The provincial wrote that he had "removed" Ronan immediately from Ireland after discovering the abuse accusations in 1959. Ronan began working in Chicago and was later transferred to Portland. He died in 1992.
While the letter does not mention Vatican involvement in the transfer, it clearly implicates the Servites in placing a known child molester in a Chicago high school, St. Philip's. The provincial, whose name is illegible, wrote that after transferring Ronan from Ireland to Chicago, "I am expecting the worst any day here at St. Philip's but much better that it occur here than in a seminary."
Lena said in a statement that the files show that the Holy See didn't learn of the accusations against Ronan until 1966, after the abuse against Doe occurred in Portland and after the laicization request was sent to Rome. "The Holy See was not involved in Ronan's transfers, including the transfer to Portland, and had no prior knowledge that Ronan posed a danger to minors," he said.
He said the Vatican was releasing "all known documents relating to Ronan held by the Roman Curia" to help the Oregon court determine the remaining jurisdictional question in the case: whether Ronan was an employee of the Holy See, which is critical to determining whether the Vatican can be held liable for the abuse Doe endured.
None of the documents released Wednesday relate directly to that core employment question. Rather, they seek to support the Vatican's contention that it had no prior knowledge of Ronan's crimes before 1966, that it wasn't responsible for transferring him and therefore isn't liable for the abuse Doe suffered.
The Vatican says religious orders, and not the Vatican, are entirely responsible for transferring their priests around the world, just as individual dioceses are responsible for transferring diocesan priests from place to place.
Lena said Doe's attorney, Jeffrey Anderson, never had any evidence to support his "calumnious accusations" that the Vatican itself had transferred Ronan to Portland while knowing that he posed a danger to minors.
Doe's lawyers, Lena said, "have nonetheless chosen to misuse the legal system as a vehicle to pursue a broader agenda – a decision that has misled the public and wasted considerable resources."
Anderson said Wednesday that at first blush, the documentation raised more questions than it answered.
"It's a very suspicious, limited and selective release and is far from what has been required and ordered by the court, and raises more concerns about candor and the completeness" required of the Vatican, Anderson said by telephone.
Anderson has filed hundreds of lawsuits against priests and dioceses in the U.S. concerning priestly sex abuse. In addition to the Portland case he has named the Holy See as a defendant in two other U.S. lawsuits, in Milwaukee and Chicago.
The main U.S. victims' group, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, welcomed the Vatican's release though it noted that it did so only because it was forced to by a court and had resisted such discovery requests for nine years.
"It's clear that this is a desperate, last minute Vatican ploy to seem ever-so-slightly less recalcitrant than it has been for decades with clergy sex crimes and cover ups," said Barbara Dorris, SNAP's outreach director.