VATICAN CITY — The Vatican on Monday responded to allegations it long concealed clerical sex abuse by making it clear for the first time that bishops and clerics worldwide should report such crimes to police if they are required to by law.
The policy, spelled out in a guide for laymen and posted on the Vatican's Web site, matches the policy worked out by U.S. bishops after an explosion of sex abuse cases in 2002.
Unlike the American norms, however, the Vatican guide contains no call for "zero tolerance" for priests who rape and molest children, and victims immediately criticized it as insufficient.
The Vatican insists it has long been the Catholic Church's policy for bishops, like all Christians, to obey civil reporting laws. But such an explicit policy had never been spelled out – until Monday.
"Civil law concerning reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities should always be followed," said the newly posted guideline.
That phrase was not included in a draft of the document obtained Friday by The Associated Press. The Vatican offered no explanation for the addition. However, Pope Benedict XVI has come under increasing pressure to show the Vatican is serious about confronting clerical abuse and cracking down on church officials who let it go on virtually unchecked for decades.
The Rev. Thomas Reese, a Vatican analyst, said the guidelines will help parishioners hold bishops accountable.
"While the Vatican never told bishops they could not report abuse to the police, this is the first time the Vatican has been so clear on the responsibility to follow civil law concerning reporting of crimes," said Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
Still, it was unclear what enforcement mechanism the guideline published Monday might have. It is just that – a guideline – and not an official instruction to bishops from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
In addition, the guideline makes clear that bishops are to report "crimes" – not just allegations.
Victims were not impressed by Monday's action.
"Let's keep this in perspective: it's one sentence and it's virtually nothing unless and until we see tangible signs that bishops are responding," said Joelle Casteix, western regional director for SNAP, the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests, the main victims' group in the U.S. "One sentence can't immediately reverse centuries of self-serving secrecy."
She said if the Vatican truly wanted to change course "it would be far more effective to fire or demote bishops who have clearly endangered kids and enabled abuse and hid crimes, than to add one sentence to a policy that is rarely followed with consistency."
The document falls far short of U.S. norms. That policy, approved by the Vatican as church law in the U.S., bars credibly accused priests from any public church work while the allegations are investigated. Diocesan review boards, comprised mostly of lay people, help bishops oversee cases. Clergy found guilty are permanently barred from public ministry and, in some cases, ousted from the priesthood.
In a letter to the Irish faithful last month, Pope Benedict XVI told Irish bishops they should cooperate with civil authorities in investigating abuse. However, this is the first time the Vatican has issued a guideline for the church as a whole.
None of the core public Vatican documents that address the handling of abuse direct bishops to report cases to police. Nor does canon law make such an explicit requirement.
Jeffrey Lena, the Vatican's U.S. lawyer, said a 1965 document from the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, contained an implicit understanding of the need to follow civil laws that are just. The reference is vague, however.
"The statement confirms what has been long known, that where the civil state creates an obligation to report, bishops like anyone else are required to examine the law and determine what they have to do to obey it," Lena told the AP.
"These guidelines may help clarify that point for people who are less familiar with canon law."
In 2002, after the clerical abuse scandal erupted in the United States, American bishops enacted reforms instructing bishops to comply with state laws for reporting abuse, and to cooperate with authorities. All U.S. dioceses were also instructed to advise victims of their right to contact authorities themselves.
As of 2008, at least 26 U.S. states required clergy to report suspected child abuse; another 15 required anyone suspecting abuse to report it.
The Irish church, which has endured a clerical abuse scandal, has required clergy to report suspected abuse cases to health officials or police since 1996.
Norms adopted in 2002 by the German church advise accused priests to contact law enforcement themselves, but there are no requirements for church authorities to do so. Bishops in Benedict's native Bavaria have urged the policy be changed to require that all suspected cases be automatically reported to police.
Nicholas Cafardi, a canon lawyer who was chairman of the U.S. bishops' child protection board that drafted the U.S. norms, said the Vatican guidelines were important.
"First, it makes it clear that the Vatican understands that transparency is important in confronting this crisis," he said in an e-mail.
"Second, it helps to debunk the idea that the 1962 Vatican document, Crimen Sollicitationis, mandated that bishops not report to civil authorities ... The fact is that Crimen did not mandate non-reporting, although it has been distorted that way," said Cafardi, a professor at Duquesne University Law School.
Lawyers for victims in the United States have argued the 1962 document – which means "crimes of solicitation" in Latin – and another issued in 2001 barred reporting child abuse allegations to police.
The 1962 document described church procedure for handling cases of abuse of minors or where sex is solicited in the confessional – a particularly heinous crime under canon law – as well as allegations of homosexuality and bestiality.
It was replaced in 2001 with new norms requiring bishops to refer all clerical sex abuse cases to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which then determines how to proceed. In a letter explaining the norms, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said the cases are to be sent to Rome "under pontifical secret."
Lawyers for victims have argued the reference to secrecy reflected a Vatican policy barring bishops from reporting abuse to police. The Vatican says the secrecy reference only applied to the internal, canonical proceedings and did not bar reporting allegations to authorities.
In its guideline Monday, the Vatican confirmed that it was revising the 2001 norms further, and that the reporting section would remain. It didn't say how else the 2001 norms would be revised.
Dan Shea, a lawyer who tried unsuccessfully to sue the pope in Texas for allegedly covering up abuse, called the new guideline "hogwash" and said the previous Vatican documents clearly mandated bishops to cover up abuse.