TORONTO - A Canadian diocese is defending its handling of sexual-abuse complaints against a top church official amid new evidence its former bishop discussed with Vatican officials how to keep the scandal from becoming public.

In a statement from the eastern Ontario diocese of Pembroke, Bishop Michael Mulhall said the process by which the facts came to light in the 1990s "took time and careful consideration" of the interests of the parties.

The initial allegations were of "uncertain nature," Mulhall said Friday.

"The diocese did not at the time, and does not today, feel that the emotional impact on the victims was underplayed or trivialized."

In 1993, the late bishop of Pembroke, Joseph Windle, wrote a letter to Carlo Curis, then the pope's envoy to Canada, in which he raised concerns about Monsignor Bernard Prince.

Prince, a friend of the late Pope John Paul II, held various administrative posts in Ottawa and Toronto before being moved to the Vatican in 1991.

A man, now 53, who cannot be identified because of a court publication ban, said he had complained to the Pembroke diocese about Prince in 1990.

"That's the sad thing," the man said. "He was promoted."

Prince served as secretary-general of the Vatican's Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith, which works with missionary societies, from 1991 until he retired in 2004.

Mulhall said the diocese "took the initiative" in contacting the victim in October 1990 in response to "rumours" that began circulating early that year.

"The victim was encouraged to refer the allegations to the civil authorities and offered support and encouragement. His decision at the time was not to do so."

It wasn't until 2005 that Ontario Provincial Police received a complaint from a man claiming that he had been molested by Prince in 1969.

Prince returned to Canada in 2006 to face criminal charges and is currently serving a four-year sentence after being convicted in 2008 of sexually molesting 13 boys between 1964 and 1984.

Mulhall noted that part of Windle's four-page letter in 1993 stated the information was emerging "in bits and pieces, from various sources, including sordid details."

"We have no way of assessing the total accuracy of these reports," Mulhall quoted the letter as saying.

In his letter, Windle advised the Vatican to avoid honouring or promoting Prince, because it might anger abuse victims and lead them to file criminal charges or civil lawsuits.

"The consequences of such an action would be disastrous, not only for the Canadian church but for the Holy See as well," he wrote.

The correspondence was made public this week through civil court proceedings and first published by the Globe and Mail Friday.

The Vatican embassy in Ottawa refused to comment.

In his letter, Windle said he had advised at least one Vatican archbishop, Jose Sanchez, now a cardinal, about the abuse complaint but had no objections to Prince being given another chance.

"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," Windle wrote

However, after Prince took up his Vatican post, Windle informed the papal nuncio in Ottawa that the situation had become "more precarious" because four or five men were claiming to have been abused by Prince as boys.

Prince, who grew up in a Polish settlement in Ontario, became friends with Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow before he became Pope John Paul II.

There are pictures of the late pope with Prince, and Canadian diva Celine Dion included a 1984 photo of her with Prince and the pope at the Vatican.

Prince was defrocked last year.

The new revelations come as a bishop facing child pornography charges in Ontario was slapped with a civil lawsuit alleging he sexually assaulted a young boy who lived at the Mount Cashel Orphanage in St. John's, N.L.