VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican told bishops around the world yesterday that it is important to cooperate with police in reporting priests who rape and molest children and asked them to develop guidelines by next May for preventing sex abuse.
But the letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith made no provision to ensure the bishops follow the guidelines, and victims groups immediately denounced the recommendations because they stress bishops' exclusive authority to determine credibility of abuse allegations.
The letter is the Vatican's latest effort to show it is serious about rooting out pedophiles from the priesthood, a year after the sex abuse scandal exploded on a global scale with thousands more victims coming forward in Europe and beyond.
It is a 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 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.
The letter 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 United States 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.
"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," said Maeve Lewis, executive director of the Irish victims group One in Four. She called 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.
He said the Vatican didn't make reporting abuse cases to police mandatory because different countries have different laws that bishops must abide by. The Vatican has said such a binding reporting rule would be problematic in countries with repressive regimes.