Reporting from London and Los Angeles — Buffeted by a growing sex abuse scandal across Europe, the Vatican issued guidelines Monday that for the first time explicitly require church officials to report such crimes to the police.
The directive, which follows the course taken by U.S. bishops eight years ago, was published on the Holy See's website amid mounting accusations that the Roman Catholic hierarchy has been more concerned about hushing up abuse cases by priests and avoiding adverse publicity than punishing wrongdoers.
"Civil law concerning reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities should always be followed," said the Vatican's online primer on how such cases should be handled.
Victims' groups reacted with skepticism.
"It's virtually nothing unless and until we see tangible signs that bishops are responding," said Joelle Casteix of Newport Beach, western regional director in the U.S. of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "One sentence can't immediately reverse centuries of self-serving secrecy."
The Vatican statement clarifies what critics say has been a deliberately nebulous policy that has promoted a culture of silence. Specifically, they point to a 2001 order from Pope Benedict XVI, when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, that bishops deal with sexual abuse cases in secret.
The Vatican denies that anything in the 2001 directive prevented church officials from turning cases over to police when warranted. Still, the newly published instruction to cooperate with civil authorities is apparently the Vatican's first explicit mandate to the church at large to do so.
The sentence did not even appear in an earlier draft of the online guidelines obtained last week by the Associated Press. The Vatican did not comment on how it came to be included Monday, the AP reported.
Other than the reference to reporting crimes to civil authorities, the bulk of what was published on the Vatican website merely restates existing policies, said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"Basically, it's explaining something that maybe wasn't that well understood before," she said. "But there's nothing new here."
Even the mandate to report crimes wasn't new, she said, although it was "not explicitly said" in the 2001 document on sexual abuse. "It's been the policy -- you report a crime," she said.
That has not been universally understood, however, and certainly not universally followed, church critics said.
"Whether she says it's in there in the policy, it hasn't been practiced, it hasn't been propagated, it hasn't been the understanding of those of us who have had to deal with the victims," said Richard Sipe, a former priest who has written widely on the sexual abuse crisis and has been sharply critical of the church.
Sipe offered qualified praise of the newly published policy. "It is a step forward, no question about that," he said. "It's a step toward reason. But it is not the reform of the system."
Nicholas Cafardi, a canon law specialist at the Duquesne University Law School, had a similar reaction. Cafardi was a member of the National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Youth, established as part of the 2002 charter that overhauled U.S. church policy on handling sexual abuse. That document included the policy that police be notified of every sexual abuse case.
"Now, eight years later, the Holy See is saying, yes, you have to comply with civil reporting laws. It's new in that sense, in that it's clearly applicable to the entire church," Cafardi said. "It's a good start, but it's nowhere near enough."
He said he would like to see the Vatican adopt other aspects of the U.S. policy, including the "zero tolerance" rule that automatically bars priests from active ministry if they are found to have molested children. Until it does, he said, the church is likely to see a never-ending string of sexual abuse scandals. "It's like watching the same guy falling down the same set of steps over and over again," he said.
Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, noted that since 1997, clergy in California have been among those mandated by state law to report any allegation of child sexual abuse.
The Vatican's primer reiterates that any complaint of sexual abuse with "a semblance of truth" must be sent for examination to the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office headed by Benedict before he became pontiff. Penalties for clerics found guilty of such acts include a "life of prayer and penance" or, in "very grave" instances, immediate defrocking by the pope.
Publication of the guidelines comes after weeks of spiraling allegations of priestly abuse and church cover-up in countries including Germany, the Netherlands and Austria.
Later this week, Benedict is scheduled to make his first foreign visit since the scandal erupted, to staunchly Catholic Malta. But the crisis has spread there as well, with reports that 45 of the nation's 850 priests have been accused of abuse.