The Vatican's American embassy may have played a key role in keeping secret the scope and seriousness of the priest sexual abuse problem and of the millions of dollars in church money used to keep the scandal quiet, ABCNEWS has learned.
In a tape obtained by ABCNEWS, the auxiliary bishop of Cleveland, A. James Quinn, was recorded in 1990 telling a seminar of church leaders and lawyers to destroy any anonymous allegations when sex-abuse allegations arise.
"Personnel files should be carefully examined to determine their content. Unsigned letters alleging misconduct should be expunged," Quinn said on tape.
Quinn continued to suggest that officials should consider sending "dangerous" material to the apostolic delegation at the Vatican Embassy, before lawyers or law enforcement officials could formally subpoena the material. The Vatican has its own embassy in Washington, which enjoys the same diplomatic immunity granted the embassies of other countries, which could make it a safe place to hide damaging information.
"If you think it's going to be necessary, if there is something there that you really don't want reviewed, you might send it off to the apostolic delegation," said Quinn. "They have immunity. If it's dangerous, if it's something you consider dangerous you might send it off to them."
The Vatican Embassy declined to answer ABCNEWS' questions about Quinn's statement, but church officials have said the embassy and the Vatican were only recently made aware of the details of sexual abuse cases.
Quinn also declined to talk to ABCNEWS about his advice on how to handle sex-abuse cases.
Lawyer: Embassy Officials Knew
The sexual abuse scandal plaguing the U.S. Catholic Church exploded with accusations against former priest John Geoghan, who was convicted in January of sexually molesting a 10-year-old boy in 1991. He is serving a nine- to-10 year prison sentence in Massachusetts.
To date, 86 people have accused Geoghan of molesting them, and they claim the Archdiocese of Boston, knowing Geoghan had been accused of sexual abuse, nevertheless kept transferring him from parish to parish. The archdiocese caused further controversy when it pulled out of a proposed settlement worth up to $30 million with the alleged victims.
Since then, other cases have made headlines. On May 2, the Rev. Paul Shanley, 71, was arrested in San Diego. The retired priest was wanted in Massachusetts on three charges of child rape. The alleged victim, now 24, has accused Shanley of abusing him repeatedly from 1983 to 1990, starting when the boy was 6.
The former canon lawyer at the Vatican Embassy, Father Tom Doyle, says embassy officials have known for years — and passed on to Rome — details of the growing scandal.
"It's been known at the Vatican since at least 1985, and I'm certain of it," said Doyle. "I personally sent a report that was sent to the Vatican in spring of 1985 naming names."
Jason Berry, author of Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children, said the tape shows an effort to bury any potentially damaging evidence.
"Bishop Quinn was basically saying if you have something that's incriminating, send it to the Vatican Embassy," said Berry. "They can hide it."