After months of anticipation, the Vatican issued a letter Monday that gives Roman Catholic bishops worldwide a year to come up with national guidelines on how to deal with the problem of child sexual abuse by priests.
The letter was the latest indication that Pope Benedict XVI has recognized sexual abuse as a global scourge, not an American aberration. Although the Vatican document was immediately castigated by church critics as toothless and vague, it was welcomed by others as a harbinger of progress.
"I think it's a step forward," said Nicholas Cafardi, dean emeritus of the Duquesne Law School in Pittsburgh and former chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' panel on child protection. "It's good to see the church requiring every bishops conference in the world to deal with what we now know is a worldwide problem."
The letter, issued by Cardinal William J. Levada, the chief doctrinal officer of the Vatican, is not expected to have any effect on the Catholic Church in the United States because U.S. bishops adopted their own rules in 2002 for dealing with sexual abuse cases. Those "zero-tolerance" norms called for notifying civil authorities of abuse cases, removing abusive priests from ministry (but not necessarily the priesthood) and creating programs to safeguard young people and educate them about sexual predators.
Father Federico Lombardi, the chief Vatican spokesman, said in a telephone interview that the Vatican letter was intended to establish "a certain homogeneity, a certain coherence" in the way the church deals with sexual abuse worldwide, while recognizing that bishops face very different political and legal climates in different parts of the world.
Levada gave the bishops until May 2012 to respond and may reject some guidelines if he believes they are inadequate, Lombardi said.
In addition to the United States, Catholic bishops conferences in a number of countries, primarily in Europe and the Americas, have already adopted guidelines on dealing with priests who molest children. "Today's document is maybe not much for those conferences," the spokesman said.
Church officials in the United States credit the U.S. norms with reducing the number of new cases of sexual abuse by priests, although a recent grand jury report about sex abuse in Philadelphia suggests the rules are not a panacea. Dozens of priests were implicated in the report, and two priests, one former priest and a monsignor were criminally charged.
The Vatican letter grew out of a meeting Levada held with a group of cardinals last fall. It reminds bishops that sexual abuse of minors is not only a violation of church law "but also a crime prosecuted by civil law," adding that bishops should always follow the local law about reporting crimes. It exempts them, however, from reporting information that emerges during confession.
It stresses that priests are innocent until proved guilty and devotes more space to what it terms the "support of priests" than to "the protection of minors."
David Clohessy, a spokesman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said he found the letter overly vague and generally disappointing.
He noted that it makes no mention of punishment for those who fail to act. "Really and truly, there's no carrot and no stick," he said.
"The single step that clearly has not been taken is to severely punish church officials who ignore and conceal abuse, and that's not happening now, nor is it even being discussed," Clohessy said.
He acknowledged that the church had legitimate concerns about turning over suspect priests to some governments. "They aren't hallucinating when they say there are corrupt regimes in the world, there are anticlerical regimes," he said. "That means there are always going to be exceptions. That doesn't mean there shouldn't be clear Vatican guidelines."
Cafardi said he too would like to see clear guidelines in church law. Still, he said, "I think they do understand the seriousness of the problem, and I think they're dealing with it the best that they can. The Vatican is not going to move at light speed here. They tend to be very cautious at moving forward, even on issues as serious as sexual abuse of children."