Ottawa - Canadian bishops sought to hide a pedophile priest's crimes by urging the Vatican not to promote him, according to a 1993 letter obtained Friday by AFP, in the latest revelations to rock the Church.
The letter written by an Ontario bishop, made public as part of a civil suit, comes amid the growing scandal over the Catholic Church's alleged inaction over sex abuse cases against children in the past decades.
In the four-page letter, Canadian church officials warned Pope Benedict XVI's envoy to Canada not to promote Monsignor Bernard Prince, now 75, to the Episcopate nor present him with Papal honours in order to avoid charges and a public trial.
Prince was defrocked and sentenced by an Ontario court in 2008 to four years in prison for abusing 13 boys between 1964 and 1984. He is due to be released in 2012.
At the time the letter was written on February 10, 1993, Prince had recently been posted to the Vatican as a high-ranking official working with missionary societies, where he worked until his retirement in 2004.
The year before Prince was sent to Rome, a 34-year-old man complained to the diocese that the priest had molested him when he was a child. Ontario bishops learned of further victims later.
"A promotion of any kind would indicate to the (original) victim that he is being further victimized," late Bishop Joseph Windle of Pembroke, Ontario said in the letter to the Apostolic Nunciature in Ottawa.
"And hence we could anticipate that a charge would be laid and a public trial would follow," he said. "The consequences... would be disastrous, not only for the Canadian Church but for the Holy See as well."
"It is a situation which we wish to avoid at all costs."
Windle, who died in 1997, also said he had the backing of "all of the bishops of Ontario who are aware of this situation (and there are several)," mentioning six by name.
The Vatican is currently reeling from large-scale child sex abuse scandals around the world, including in the United States, Ireland, Germany and Norway.
Senior clerics were accused of protecting guilty clergy by moving them to other parishes - where they sometimes offended again - instead of handing them over to authorities to be tried.
The 82-year-old pope has himself faced allegations that as a cardinal heading the Vatican's watchdog for morals and doctrinal issues, and earlier as the archbishop of Munich, he failed to take action against predator priests.
Looking back, Windle said he initially did "not object to him (Prince) being given another chance (in Rome) since it would remove him from the Canadian scene."
"At that time, we were under the impression that the incident was isolated, in the distant past, and there was little or no danger of any scandal ever emerging," he said in his letter.
But "four or five" new cases had since been brought to light, he wrote.
According to Robert Talach, a lawyer for several of the victims, Prince had preyed on boys mostly in Wilno, a Polish settlement 180 kilometers (110 miles) west of Ottawa where he grew up.
"One redeeming factor is that it would appear that the victims involved are of Polish descent and their respect for the priesthood and the Church has made them refrain from making these allegations public or laying a criminal charge against a priest," Windle had commented in the 1993 letter.
Talach told AFP six civil suits against Prince have been settled and 10 more are to go to court in 2012.
Talach's own clients - eight in total - are each claiming two million dollars in damages from Prince and his former diocese.