May 16th, 2011
05:43 AM ET
By Richard Allen Greene and Hada Messia
New Vatican guidelines aimed at fighting child abuse by priests tell Catholic bishops they should cooperate with police, but do not order them to report allegations to the authorities.
"Sexual abuse of minors is not just a canonical delict but also a crime prosecuted by civil law," says the letter to bishops around the world, using the Vatican term for a violation of church law.
Local laws on reporting suspected crimes to the authorities "should always be followed," the guidelines say.
The new Vatican advice gives national conferences of bishops until May next year to come up with their own guidelines on how to handle allegations of abuse.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi conceded that there was little new in Monday's letter, but said breaking new ground was not the point - standardizing the church's response to abuse allegations was.
"Novelty is not the aim of the document," he said. "The aim of the letter is to have a common denominator of principles."
Many countries' bishops' conferences already have plans in place, but some - such as Italy - do not, Lombardi said.
"For some that have already started dealing with the problem, this letter is an encouragement, and some who have never worked on it will now start dealing with it," Lombardi said.
Bishops in Belgium and the Netherlands - both facing sex abuse scandals - are working on their own sets of guidelines. Other nations, such as Brazil, Germany, and many English-speaking countries already have them, Lombardi said.
Advocates for victims said even before they were released that they would not solve the problem.
"Bishops ignore and conceal child sex crimes because they can," said David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). "So any 'reform' that doesn't diminish bishops' power and discretion is virtually meaningless."
And the new Vatican statement will not require bishops to report suspected abusers to the police, he anticipated.
"They aren't binding or mandatory, just suggestions," he said. "Such voluntary 'guidelines' have been widely ignored for years in the past. Top church staff have known of clergy sex crimes and cover ups for decades, if not centuries."
Clohessy spoke to CNN before seeing the Vatican's statement.
The Catholic Church has been reeling in the face of accusations of child abuse from across the United States and Europe, and stretching back decades.
In the United States, eight Catholic dioceses and one Jesuit order have filed for bankruptcy protection in the face of lawsuits by victims, according to BishopAccountability, which tracks reports of abuse by priests.
The scandal has now spread to Philadelphia, where four priests and a parochial school teacher pleaded not guilty last month to sexual abuse and conspiracy charges.
A Philadelphia grand jury report released in February led to criminal charges against them by the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office. All five have also been charged with conspiracy.
A total of 23 priests in the Philadelphia area have been placed on administrative leave.
And a series of government-backed reports in deeply Catholic Ireland found a pattern of abuse and systematic cover-ups by church officials stretching back to the 1930s.
The Vatican says only a tiny percentage of priests abuse children, and that it is taking steps to fight the problem, including defrocking priests or forcing them into positions where they do not have contact with the public.
Pope Benedict XVI issued new rules last year aimed at stopping abuse.
They included doubling the statute of limitations on the church's own prosecution of suspected molesters from 10 to 20 years, making it a church crime for a priest to download child pornography, and allowing the pope to defrock a priest without a formal Vatican trial.
Monday's guidelines, known officially as a Circular Letter from the Vatican to Catholic bishops' conferences around the world, are a follow-up to last year's statement from the pope, "motu proprio Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela."
From around the web
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.