Former president Mary McAleese says she refused to discuss an attempt by the Vatican in 2003 to secure an agreement with Ireland that it would not access church documents.
Speaking to The Irish Times, Ms McAleese has revealed what she described as "one of the most devastating moments in my presidency".
It occurred during a State visit to Italy when she had a private meeting with then Vatican secretary of state Angelo Sodano.
“He indicated that he would like, and the Vatican would like, an agreement with Ireland, a concordat with Ireland. I asked him why and it was very clear it was because he wanted to protect Vatican and diocesan archives. I have to say that I immediately said the conversation had to stop,” Ms McAleese said.
Everybody knows now that the secrecy was certainly not conducive to the good of the church
"I told him I thought it extraordinarily inappropriate and very, very dangerous to the church, if it was pursued," she said. "I asked Msgr Joe Murphy of Cloyne [then secretary to Cardinal Sodano] who was in the room that day along with my husband and Dermot McCarthy, then secretary to the government, and I said: 'Look, I have heard nothing about this subject'."
She was “very unhappy it being raised with me in private by Sodano and I said to Joe Murphy, ‘Would you explain to the cardinal that the church in Ireland is on the back foot. If this matter is pursued any further in this conversation or pursued outside of it, in my view the church would be flat on its back.’ So the matter was dropped there and I never heard any mention of it again.”
What worried her most was that there were then two statutory inquiries under way in Ireland into child abuse involving the church. The Ryan commission (the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse), set up in 2000, was investigating the treatment of children in industrial schools, reformatories and orphanages, run by 18 religious congregations.
In March 2003, prior to her visit to Italy, the Ferns inquiry was set up, under retired Supreme Court justice Frank Murphy, to investigate clerical child sex abuse in Ferns diocese.
“What he [Cardinal Sodano] was asking for was an agreement between the Holy See and the Irish government under which church documentation would be protected by the church and the State would, clearly, have no access to it. That was what he seemed to be saying,” she said.
She was “gratified to say it never was pursued but I think the thinking is indicative of what did happen".
“I’m hoping those days are over, that everybody is more chastened now. Everybody knows now that the secrecy was certainly not conducive to the good of the church. It eroded credibility and it eroded trust.”
The Irish Times sought a comment from the Vatican's press office but none was forthcoming.