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 been demanding over the decades that the abuse 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 gave bishops too much leeway in judging the conduct of their priests. The instructions were instead part of a new handbook intended to help bishops and religious superiors who may have had 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 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.
For years, bishops have tried to handle abuse cases internally, using church investigators, tribunals and commissions in their own dioceses.
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, the Vatican expected bishops to report abuse accusations to police and prosecutors only where it is mandatory by law. But 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, the Vatican office that investigates clerical sex crimes — are likely to have the most impact in countries that do not have a well-developed system in place 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.”