Clergy must report sex abuse: Vatican

The Vatican has for the first time made it clear that bishops and other high-ranking clergy should report clerical sex abuse to police.
Pope Benedict XVI addresses the faithful in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, which on Monday released new guidelines mandating that child sexual abuse be reported to the authorities by clergy. ((L'Osservatore Romano/Associated Press))

The Vatican has for the first time made it clear that bishops and other high-ranking clergy should report sex abuse by priests to police.

The Vatican has insisted that this has long been the policy of the Roman Catholic Church. But in a new guide for lay readers posted Monday on its website, it made public for the first time an explicit policy of reporting abuse to law enforcement authorities.

"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 suspected abuse.

The Vatican offered no explanation for the addition.

Victims unimpressed

"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, of SNAP, the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests, a major U.S.-based victims group. "One sentence can't immediately reverse centuries of self-serving secrecy."

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," she said on the group's website.

Neither the core public Vatican documents to be applied in cases of abuse nor canon law directs bishops explicitly to report cases to police.

"It's beyond dispute that the canon law does not mandate non-reporting," said Jeffrey Lena, the Vatican's U.S. lawyer. "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 said.

Canadians bishops already bound to report

Canadian bishops have been obligated to report child sexual abuse since 1992, when the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse published From Pain to Hope, a 96-page booklet that listed recommendations for bishops, other clergy and laymen on dealing with allegations or situations of abuse.

"Everyone has a duty to report sexual abuse," the booklet says.

A Vatican spokesman, 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, diocese themselves 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 co-operate with civil authorities in investigating abuse. But the guidelines mark the first time that such procedures for the universal church, in which bishops are explicitly told they should follow civil reporting laws, have been laid out publicly.