By JAMEY KEATEN
2010-04-16 07:00 AM
The Sept. 8, 2001 letter from Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, then the head of the Vatican office in charge of priests, praised French bishop Pierre Pican for risking prison time to defend one of his priests.
Four days earlier, a French court gave Pican, then bishop of Bayeux-Lisieux in northwestern France, a suspended prison sentence for concealing knowledge about the Rev. Rene Bissey. Bissey was sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2000 for raping and sexually abusing 11 minors in the 1990s.
In the letter, Hoyos wrote: "I congratulate you for not having turned in a priest to the civil administration, and I am delighted to have a colleague in the episcopate who, in the eyes of history and all the other bishops of the world, will have preferred prison rather than to turn in its son-priest."
At the time of the letter, Hoyos, who is Colombian, was the prefect of the Congregation of the Clergy, which is in charge of priests worldwide and at the time dealt with some abuse cases. He was its prefect until 2006, when he retired.
French Catholic publication Golias published a copy of the letter on March 30, as the Vatican has faced swirling accusations of a culture of secrecy and cover-up that allowed priests to rape and molest children for decades unchecked.
A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Thursday the letter proved that cases of sexual abuse of minors needed to be handled in a "rigorous and consistent" manner by the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith.
"This document is further proof that it was opportune to unify the handling of cases of sexual abuse of minors from members of the clergy under the jurisdiction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith," he said.
Until 2001, cases of sex abuse were handled by local dioceses and some Vatican offices. In 2001 new norms required bishops to refer all clerical sex abuse cases to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith _ then headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI.
More recently, Hoyos had been head of the Pontifical "Ecclesia Dei" Commission, leading Vatican's effort to reconcile with an ultraconservative group, the Society of St. Pius X. He retired last year at age 80, but remains a cardinal.
Hoyos faced controversy at the commission. He was responsible for leading negotiations that led to the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop _ Richard Williamson of Britain _ who was part of that group. Hoyos said he and other officials knew nothing about the Holocaust denial, but the case turned into a massive embarrassment for the Vatican.
The conviction of Pican marked the first time in more than 150 years that a high-ranking French clergyman was found guilty of a crime. The last time a bishop was convicted in France was in 1841, over a murder by a priest in his diocese.
Pican said at the time that he regretted that the court's decision set a precedent limiting the clergy's right to keep professional secrets. He opted not to appeal so as not to "reopen old wounds" of Bissey's victims.
Associated Press Writer Alessandra Rizzo in Rome contributed to this report.