The Vatican has told bishops around the world that it is important to cooperate with police in reporting priests who rape and molest children and asked them to develop guidelines for preventing sex abuse by next May.
But Monday's letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith made no provision to ensure the bishops actually follow the guidelines, and victims groups immediately denounced the recommendations as "dangerously flawed" because they stress the exclusive authority of bishops to determine the credibility of abuse allegations.
The letter marks the latest effort by the Vatican to show that it is serious about rooting out pedophiles from the priesthood, a year after the sex abuse scandal exploded on a global scale with thousands of new victims coming forward in Europe and beyond.
It is significant in that it marks a universal directive to all the world's bishops to establish "clear and coordinated procedures" with superiors of religious orders to deal with pedophiles and care for their victims. It puts on paper that it is "important" for bishops to cooperate with police in investigating abuse allegations and that bishops should follow civil reporting laws where they exist.
But the vague, nonbinding measure failed to impress advocates for victims who have long blamed 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.
Recently, such lay review committees in the U.S. and Ireland, which act as a sort of check on bishops, have reported that some bishops "failed miserably" in following their own guidelines and thwarted the boards' work by withholding information from them 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."
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the document's emphasis on the central authority of bishops wasn't a negative commentary on the role of lay review boards but rather a reminder of the "great responsibility" bishops have in dealing with abuse cases as heads of their dioceses.
Lombardi explained that the Vatican didn't make reporting abuse cases to police mandatory on bishops because different countries have different laws that bishops must abide by. The Vatican has said such a binding reporting rule would be problematic for priests working in countries with repressive regimes.
The letter tells the bishops' conferences to consult with superiors of religious orders and draft guidelines and report them back to the Congregation by May 2012. It says 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 stresses that all accused priests are presumed innocent until proven otherwise.
Lombardi emphasized that the letter issued Monday was not designed to offer specific, binding recommendations to bishops since their situations are all different. Rather, the aim is to offer a "common, substantial denominator of fundamental principles and observations that everyone can take into account in making policies that are adapted for their situations."
Many bishops' conferences have already drafted guidelines; one glaring example of a country that hasn't is Italy, home of the Vatican, where just Sunday the country's top cardinal informed the faithful of Genoa diocese that a longtime pastor in a Genoa suburb has been jailed for allegedly abusing a 16-year-old boy and giving him drugs.
Lombardi said he expects the Italian bishops conference to now come up with conference-wide guidelines.
The letter is being issued at a time when the sex abuse guidelines of the U.S. bishops 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 archdiocese says many of the 37 were accused not of actual molestation but alleged violations of so-called "boundary issues," including inappropriate touching or sharing pornography with minors.
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.
In Ireland, the National Board for Safeguarding Children, a church-appointed independent panel overseeing compliance with Ireland's guidelines, said in its annual report last week that it was prevented from fulfilling its mandate to review diocesan responses to abuse cases because bishops mounted legal questions about the priests' privacy.
The U.S. norms, which have been held up by the Vatican as a model, 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.
The Philadelphia scandal exposed some of the loopholes in the Vatican-approved U.S. norms that leave it entirely up to bishops to determine whether there is "sufficient evidence" to warrant withdrawing accused priests from ministry.
While the new Vatican document confirms that, and seemingly diminishes the importance of lay review boards in assisting bishops in making that determination, it does say bishops are "always able to limit the exercise of the cleric's ministry until the accusations are clarified," though it doesn't say they must.
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's letter is a step forward in that it treats abuse as a universal problem that requires a universal response by bishops.
"The problem is that 'guidelines' are not the same as 'norms,'" he said. "Who polices these guidelines should a bishop chose to ignore them?"
Terence McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org, an online data center that tracks abuse, said the Vatican letter merely confirms the "dangerous loopholes" in the U.S. norms that allowed the Philadelphia scandal to occur.
"Today's Circular Letter likely will cause bishops' conferences worldwide to create policies that preserve the power of bishops to handle allegations of clergy sexual abuse, and that allow priests with admitted or established allegations to remain in ministry," he said.