The Vatican told bishops around the world on Monday that they must make it a global priority to root out sexual abuse of children by priests.
The headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church told bishops in a letter that they should cooperate with civil authorities to end the abuse that has tarnished its image around the world.
"This is telling the world that we mean business. We want to be an example of prevention and care," said one Vatican official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The letter is intended to help every diocese draw up its own tough guidelines, based on a global approach but in line with local criminal law. These must be sent to the Vatican for review within a year.
"The responsibility for dealing with delicts (crimes) of sexual abuse of minors by clerics belongs in the first place to the diocesan bishop," the letter says.
It incorporates sweeping revisions made last year to the Church's laws on sexual abuse, which doubled a statute of limitations for disciplinary action against priests and extended the use of fast-track procedures to defrock them.
But the suggestions in the letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith are vague and nonbinding and contain no enforcement mechanisms to ensure bishops actually draft the guidelines or follow them.
That is a significant omission given the latest scandal in the United States involves allegations Philadelphia's archbishop left accused priests in ministry despite purportedly tough U.S. guidelines, and evidence that Irish bishops weren't cooperating with an independent board overseeing compliance with the guidelines of the church in Ireland.
The letter failed to impress advocates for victims who have long blamed the power of bishops bent on protecting the church and its priests for fueling the scandal. Without fear of punishment themselves, bishops frequently moved pedophile priests from parish to parish rather than reporting them to police or punishing them under church law.
"There's nothing that will make a child safer today or tomorrow or next month or next year," said Barbara Dorris, outreach director for the main U.S. victims group Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests.
Critically, the letter reinforces bishops' exclusive authority in dealing with abuse cases. It says independent lay review boards that have been created in some countries to oversee the church's child protection policies and ensure compliance "cannot substitute" for bishops' judgment and power.
Vatican letter 'dangerously flawed'
Recently, such lay review committees in the U.S. and Ireland have reported that some bishops "failed miserably" in following their own guidelines and had thwarted the boards' work by withholding information and by enacting legal hurdles that made ensuring compliance impossible.
"Our central concern is that bishops and religious leaders retain enormous discretionary powers to decide if an allegation is credible," said Maeve Lewis, executive director of the Irish victims group One in Four.
"Clergymen do not have the skills or expertise to make sound decisions in this regard: that is a matter for law enforcement and child protection specialists," Lewis said, calling the Vatican letter "dangerously flawed."
In the letter, the Vatican told the bishops "it is important to cooperate" with civil law enforcement authorities and follow civil reporting requirements, though it doesn't make such reporting mandatory. The Vatican has said such a binding rule would be problematic for priests working in countries with repressive regimes.
The letter told the bishops' conferences to draft guidelines for preventing abuse and caring for victims and report them back to the Congregation by May 2012. It said bishops should be prepared to listen to victims, to create "safe environment" programs for minors and to better screen seminarians and ensure they receive proper training about celibacy and the damage done to victims of sex abuse.
It did not mention possible financial compensation for victims.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, stressed that such measures are to be taken up on a case-by-case basis and that such a recommendation didn't belong in a general letter of guidance being issued by Rome.
The letter stresses that accused priests are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
That too is the case of the U.S. norms, which were enacted after the abuse scandal exploded in Boston in 2002. But the U.S. norms nevertheless bar credibly accused priests from any public church work if sufficient evidence is found that they abused a minor. Clergy found guilty are permanently barred from public ministry and, in some cases, ousted from the priesthood.
Credibility still determined by bishops
The guidance given to bishops in the letter Monday makes no mention of removing priests but reminds bishops that they are "always able to limit the exercise of the cleric's ministry until the accusations are clarified."
The U.S. norms were approved by the Vatican and are church law in the United States. The Vatican said Monday that if other bishops' conferences want to make their guidelines binding too they must submit them to Rome for review, though it cautioned that they cannot in any way circumvent canon law.
The letter is being issued at a time when the U.S. norms have been put into question after a Philadelphia grand jury earlier this year indicted a high-ranking church official on child endangerment charges for allegedly transferring predator priests. Four co-defendants — two priests, an ex-priest and a former Catholic school teacher — are charged with raping children.
The grand jury found "substantial evidence of abuse" committed by at least 37 other priests who remained in active ministry at the time of the report. Philadelphia's archbishop, Cardinal Justin Rigali, initially insisted that no archdiocesan priests in ministry had an "admitted or established allegation" against them. But he later suspended two dozen of the 37 priests.
The scandal exposed some of the loopholes in the Vatican-approved U.S. norms that leave it entirely up to bishops to determine the credibility of allegations; the new Vatican instruction confirms that by both reinforcing bishops' responsibility and authority and seemingly diminishing the importance of lay review boards in checking their compliance.
Last week, the head of the Philadelphia archdiocese's lay review board publicly accused Rigali and his bishops of having "failed miserably at being open and transparent" because they prescreened which cases the board reviewed and left out crucial information for some priests they did review.
And last week, Ireland's National Board for Safeguarding Children, a church-appointed independent panel overseeing compliance with Ireland's guidelines, said it had been prevented from fulfilling its mandate to review diocesan responses to abuse cases by bishops' legal concerns about the priests' privacy.
On Friday, Amnesty International listed the Vatican in its annual report of global human rights abuses, citing revelations of clerical abuse around the world and the "enduring failure" of the church to address the crimes properly.
"Such failures included not removing alleged perpetrators from their posts pending proper investigations, not co-operating with judicial authorities to bring them to justice and not ensuring proper reparation to victims," Amnesty said in its report.