ROME — The Vatican has told bishops around the world to report cases of clerical sex abuse to civil authorities even where local laws don’t require it — a step that abuse victims and their advocates have demanded over the decades in which the scandal has roiled the Roman Catholic Church.
The Vatican also urged bishops to investigate even abuse claims that seem to be “doubtful,” or are made anonymously, rather than dismissing them outright.
But the new instructions are not binding and were not enshrined in the church’s canon law, prompting criticism that the Vatican still gives bishops too much leeway in judging the conduct of their priests. The instructions were instead part of a new handbook intended to guide bishops and religious superiors who may have little experience handling abuse cases.
“What is important to remember today is that it is still allowable under canon law for a bishop to not report a priest who is raping a child; it is still allowed for thousands of the world’s bishops,” Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a victims advocacy and research group, said in a telephone interview.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which has long called for mandatory reporting to the police, called the new guidance “a step forward, but the smallest of steps.”
The change comes after three popes over three decades have tried to manage an abuse scandal that has involved tens of thousands of accusations against priests and clerics.
Pope Francis, who was elected in 2013, has gone further than his predecessors, experts say, in trying to establish a universal set of practices for a global church, consulting abuse victims and laypeople and urging church leaders to cooperate with civil authorities.
But Francis has also been accused of falling short of actually enacting into law the forceful reforms he has advocated. An unprecedented sexual abuse summit at the Vatican in February 2019 raised hopes that a turning point had been reached, but it fell short of providing the clear global battle plan that Catholics have demanded.
Critics say the biggest, perennial problem for the church has been the lack of transparency and the continued failure to hold bishops accountable.
The first of the pope’s 21 recommendations to bishops when the Vatican conference began was to develop a “practical handbook indicating the steps to be taken by authorities at key moments when a case emerges.” The guidelines issued Thursday checked that box.
For years, bishops have tried to handle abuse cases internally, using church investigators, tribunals and commissions in their own dioceses before cases are forwarded to the Vatican office known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Last year, Pope Francis issued a church law that obligated bishops — for the first time — to report accusations of clergy sexual abuse to their superiors.
Until now, though, the Vatican had expected bishops to report abuse accusations to the police and prosecutors only when required by law. Many countries, and some American states, do not have such laws.
The new instructions — issued Thursday by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — are likely to have the most impact in countries that do not have a well-developed system for handling abuse cases, said the Rev. Hans Zollner, a member of the Vatican’s child-protection commission and president of the Center for Child Protection of the Pontifical Gregorian University.
He said bishops had been requesting step-by-step guidelines “for a long time.”
The new handbook says: “Even in cases where there is no explicit legal obligation to do so, the ecclesiastical authorities should make a report to the competent civil authorities if this is considered necessary to protect the person involved or other minors from the danger of further criminal acts.”
The Vatican described the handbook as an “instruction manual” meant to assist its clergy in addressing crimes that remain for the Church, “a profound wound that cries out for healing.”
Msgr. Giacomo Morandi, secretary of Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said in an interview published in The Vatican News on Thursday that the new guidelines call for the investigation of most cases of reported abuse, even those that emerge from anonymous complaints.
“It has become clear that a peremptory attitude in one sense or another is not conducive to the search for truth and justice,” he said.
The handbook says that allegations should only be dismissed if the bishop finds it is impossible to proceed because, for example, the accuser was not a minor when the abuse occurred, or it is clear that the accused perpetrator was not present.
The document notes that crimes against minors can include everything from sexual relations to pornography to “conversations and/or propositions of a sexual nature” online.
It reaffirms that reports of crimes received during confession cannot be revealed, but calls on the priest hearing confession to “seek to convince the penitent to make that information known by other means” so that the “appropriate authorities” can take action.
The document also advises bishops against what was for many years a common practice: simply transferring an accused priest to another parish, locality or country, “with the idea that distancing him from the place of the alleged crime or alleged victims constitutes a sufficient solution of the case.”
And the handbook warns that bishops who do not investigate accusations of abuse could face canonical proceedings for negligence.