The Vatican responded Monday to allegations that it had concealed years of clerical sex abuse by making it clear for the first time that bishops and other high-ranking clerics should report such crimes to police if required by law.Nothing within canon law may preclude reporting, but nothing was mandating reporting until now either. That gap in wording may have been rectified with the latest provisions - but it still means that church officials have to take steps to alert law enforcement of potential wrongdoing by those within the church.
Victims have charged that the Catholic Church created what amounted to a conspiracy to cover up abuse by keeping allegations of abuse secret and not reporting them to civil authorities.
The Vatican has insisted that it has long been the Catholic Church's policy for bishops, like all Christians, to obey civil laws. In a new guide for lay readers posted on its Web site, the Vatican explicitly spells out such a policy.
"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.
Jeffrey Lena, the Vatican's U.S. attorney, has argued that there was nothing in the canon law that guides the church that precluded reporting.
"It's beyond dispute that the canon law does not mandate non-reporting," he said. "These guidelines may help clarify that point for people who are less familiar with canon law."
The US canon law made this clearer following a major abuse scandal in 2002, but the rest of the world has yet to adopt this kind of attitude towards dealing with abuse by priests of their followers. By making the guidelines public - it should go a long way to reducing ambiguities that enable abuses to continue. It also puts Church officials on the hook should they fail to report details of abuse to law enforcement.