DUBLIN - Ireland's government summoned the Vatican's ambassador Thursday for a rare face-to-face confrontation to respond to a report showing Rome secretly discouraged Irish bishops from reporting pedophile priests to police.
Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore met Pope Benedict XVI's diplomat in Dublin a day after Irish investigators found that the Vatican in 1997 encouraged bishops to reject the Irish church's tough new child-protection rules.
Prime Minister Enda Kenny, who didn't attend the meeting, called the Vatican's role in placing the church's own canon law above Irish criminal law "absolutely disgraceful."
He vowed to pass legislation that would make it a crime to withhold evidence of child abuse from the police even information that a priest obtains in the confession booth. The church insists that a priest must keep confidential any crimes revealed to him during a confession.
Kenny said 21st century Ireland would no longer defer to Catholic authority. His comments underscored the rapidly changing mood in a nation that has long placed Catholic teachings at the heart of its schools and government but has found itself paying more than $1.4 billion in compensation to victims of sex predators in the church.
"The law of the land should not be stopped by a crozier or a collar," Kenny said.
Over the past two decades of child-abuse scandals in the Irish Catholic church, the Vatican has stressed it was a solely local, Irish problem that Rome-based officials regretted but could not direct. Pope Benedict repeated this line in his 2010 pastoral letter to the Irish people.
Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza, speaking after his brief meeting with the foreign minister, refused to take reporters' questions. Head bowed, he read a short statement saying he wanted to stress "the total commitment of the Holy See for its part in taking all the necessary measures to ensure the protection of children."
Leanza said he had just received a copy of the latest Irish government-ordered report into Catholic cover-ups. The government published the report Wednesday. Leanza said he would "bring it to the immediate attention of the Holy See."
In Rome, Vatican officials declined comment.
The latest investigation documents 1996-2009 concealment of abuse complaints in a County Cork diocese and is seen in Ireland as particularly significant because it proves that, at least in the diocese of Cloyne, church leaders ignored their own 1996 get-tough rules.
The investigators deemed chilling a 1997 letter from the Vatican to Ireland's bishops criticizing the 1996 policy, which for the first time promised the Irish public that all bishops would be required to tell police of any suspected cases. The AP published that letter in January.
In the letter, the Vatican's then-ambassador, the late Archbishop Luciano Storero, warned Irish bishops that a powerful church body, the Congregation for the Clergy, had decided that such mandatory reporting of abuse claims to civil authorities conflicted with the church's secretive canon law. He said the Irish bishops, if they followed the new policy, risked suffering embarrassment if they did not stick closely to canon-law requirements.
The Vatican has claimed that the letter was not seeking to undermine the 1996 church initiative, but Kenny dismissed that as implausible. He said for too long Catholic officials had permitted pedophiles to remain in parishes at the expense of children who suffered rape and molestation as a result.
"I think this is absolutely disgraceful, that the Vatican took the view that it did in respect of something that's as sensitive and as personal with such long-lasting difficulties for persons involved," he said.
Leanza has come under fire in Ireland for repeatedly rebuffing requests from Ireland's series of state-ordered investigations into Catholic Church concealment of child-abuse crimes. Last year he refused to testify before a parliamentary committee trying to explore the Vatican's role.
Justice Minister Alan Shatter said no foreign state should be dictating child-protection policies to any organization based in Ireland, particularly the Catholic Church, which owns and oversees most elementary schools and several hospitals in Ireland.
He said it was unacceptable that the 1997 letter "interfered with" the Irish church's child-protection initiatives.