A controversy was brewing in France Friday after publication of a letter in which a high Vatican official praised a French bishop for shielding a paedophile priest from police.
Dated Sep 8, 2001, the letter was posted by the progressive Catholic online daily Golias. In it, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos 'congratulates' Bishop Pierre Pican 'for not having denounced a priest to the civil authorities'.
At the time, Castrillon Hoyos was Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy. The commission is responsible for overseeing matters regarding priests and deacons not belonging to religious orders.
He was also a close collaborator of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is today Pope Benedict XVI. Castrillon Hoyos retired in July 2009.
'You acted well,' Castrillon Hoyos wrote, 'and I am pleased to have a colleague in the episcopate who... preferred prison to denouncing his son and priest.'
Pican ultimately was handed a suspended sentence of three months in prison for protecting the priest, Rene Bissey, from arrest. Bissey was eventually sentenced to 18 years in prison for repeatedly raping one boy and sexually assaulting 10 others.
The cardinal concluded by saying the Congregation for the Clergy would send copies of the letter to all bishop conferences of the Catholic Church, 'to encourage the brothers of the episcopate in this very sensitive domain'.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi indirectly admitted the authenticity of the letter by saying in a press statement that it confirmed 'how fortunate it was to have centralised under the authority of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith affairs of sexual abuse of minors committed by priests.'
Special powers to deal with sex-abuse cases were conceded to this Congregation in January 2009.