The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said with the 1997 letter the Vatican merely wanted to ensure that Irish bishops follow church law precisely so that pedophile priests would not have any technical grounds to escape church punishment.
It by no means instructed bishops to disregard civil reporting requirements about abuse, added the Vatican's U.S. lawyer, Jeffrey Lena.
At the time, there were no such reporting requirements in Ireland. In fact, the Irish bishops were ahead of Irish lawmakers in cooperating with law enforcement as dioceses were hit with the first wave of lawsuits by victims of abusive priests.
Lombardi and Lena issued statements after The Associated Press reported Tuesday that the letter from the Holy See's top diplomat in Ireland had told Irish bishops that their mandatory reporting policy "gives rise to serious reservations of both a moral and a canonical nature."
The bishops' 1996 policy makes clear, with dozens of citations, that canon law must be followed, raising questions about what - beyond the police reporting requirement - the Vatican was so concerned about.
As a result, the letter has undermined persistent Vatican claims, particularly when seeking to defend itself in U.S. lawsuits, that Rome never suggested that local bishops not cooperate with police.
The letter cited the Vatican's Congregation for Clergy, which had reviewed the Irish document.
At the time, the Congregation for Clergy was headed by Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, who has routinely defended the church's practice of not reporting abuse to police. At the height of the Vatican's sex abuse scandal last year, Castrillon Hoyos told a Colombian radio station that no one should be forced to report abuse.
"The law in nations with a well-developed judiciary does not force anyone to testify against a child, a father, against other people close to the suspect," Castrillon told RCN radio. "Why would they ask that of the church? That's the injustice."
Lombardi in his statement noted that the letter from the Vatican's nuncio, Archbishop Luciano Storero, was issued before the Vatican in May 2001 instructed all bishops around the world to send abuse cases to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for review.
The Vatican has insisted that 2001 shift marked a turning point in the way it dealt with abuse. The 2001 norms, however, say nothing about the need to report abuse to police.
And later that year, in September 2001, Castrillon Hoyos congratulated a French bishop in a letter for receiving a suspended prison sentence for having concealed knowledge of a priest who was convicted of raping and sexually abusing minors.
Only last year did the Vatican post a nonbinding, unofficial guide on its website saying bishops should follow civil reporting laws where they exist.
The Vatican's concern about mandatory reporting of abuse stems in part from its concern that information gleaned during the sacrament of confession remain confidential. In addition, the Vatican has its own norms for dealing with abuse involving the confessional that require the church proceedings be kept strictly secret.
Victims' lawyers have said such secrecy amounted to a policy to cover up abuse and mandated non-reporting to civil authorities. Lena has insisted in court papers that the norms do no such thing.