VATICAN CITY — The Vatican on Monday made clear for the first time that bishops and other church officials should report clerical sex abuse to police if required by law.
But the policy failed to satisfy victims who charge that the church deliberately hid abuse for decades.
Victims, government inquiries and grand juries have all charged that the Catholic Church created what amounted to a conspiracy to cover up abuse by keeping allegations that priests raped and molested children secret and not reporting them to civil authorities.
The Vatican has insisted that it has long been the Catholic Church's policy for bishops, like all Christians, to obey civil reporting laws. In a new guide for lay readers posted on its Web site, the Vatican explicitly spells out such a policy.
"Civil law concerning reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities should always be followed," the Vatican guidelines said.
That phrase was not included in a draft of the guidelines obtained Friday by the Associated Press. The rest of the guidelines follow previously known and public procedures for handling canonical investigations and trials of priests suspected of abuse.
The Vatican offered no explanation for the addition.
Victims were not impressed.
"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 direct or 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."
None of the core public Vatican documents to be applied in cases 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 vague citation, however, is not nearly as explicit as what is contained in the lay guide.
"It's beyond dispute that the canon law does not mandate non-reporting," Lena said. "These guidelines may help clarify that point for people who are less familiar with canon law."
"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.
In 2002, after the clerical abuse scandal erupted in the United States, American bishops enacted reforms, which the Vatican made church law for the U.S., that do not specifically order all bishops to notify civil authorities of new claims. Instead, the U.S. policy instructs bishops to comply with state laws for reporting abuse, and to cooperate with authorities. All U.S. dioceses were al so instructed to advise victims of their right to contact authorities themselves.
The Rev. Davide Cito, a canon lawyer at Rome's Santa Croce University, called the publication of the universal church policy in the lay guidelines "an important development."
"I'm very pleased," he said. "A Christian also has to follow civil laws. It's a Christian duty."
A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, said the reporting requirement had been the internal policy of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 2003.
The Vatican in 2001 shifted its policy on dealing with abuse cases, ordering bishops around the world to refer all cases to the Congregation, which then decides how to proceed. Previously, dioceses dealt with most of the cases on their own.
Asked how bishops were supposed to know of this internal policy on reporting to police, Benedettini declined to comment.
Pope Benedict XVI had told Irish bishops last month that they should cooperate with civil authorities in investigating abuse. But the guidelines mark the first time that such procedures for the church at large, in which bishops are explicitly told they should follow civil reporting laws, have been laid out publicly.