The Vatican is asking every national bishops' conference worldwide to write guidelines for responding to complaints of sexual abuse by priests, but advocates for victims believe the recommendations are inadequate.
They include respecting accusers and obeying reporting laws, but no penalties are required for failing to do so. A "zero tolerance" policy for offenders is recommended, but not required.
"It's a step forward. ... It's an acknowledgement that the problem is universal," said Nicholas Cafardi, a law professor at Duquesne University, former chairman of the National Review Board that advises the U.S. bishops on the issue, and author of "Before Dallas," a book on the canonical history of sex abuse in the church.
"But I certainly would caution that we had guidelines in 1992 in the United States, and guidelines on their own did not solve the problem."
Each bishops' conference has until May 2012 to write and submit guidelines to the Vatican.
"Do it, and do it now. That's what this is saying," said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Because the U.S. bishops already have guidelines this doesn't apply to them, she said.
This document had been expected for months, but the public release comes three days after the human rights group Amnesty International cited the Vatican for failure to protect children from abuse.
Earlier this year a grand jury found that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia had kept many abusers in the ministry. The head of the archdiocesan review board, which under U.S. bishops' rules must evaluate abuse claims and make recommendations, last week accused Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali of hiding evidence from the board.
That, Mr. Cafardi said, illustrates a universal policy failure that this document doesn't correct: There is no prescribed penalty for bishops who fail to protect minors from predators.
"There is nothing about the responsibility of bishops, beyond conducting the investigation and making sure that canonical procedures are followed for the accused party. Nothing addresses the bishop's responsibility not to put a sexually abusive priest back in ministry," he said.
Citing the case of an Australian bishop recently removed for suggesting that the church discuss ordaining women, he said, "We should be doing the same with bishops who have knowingly kept a sexually abusive priest in ministry."
Because some bishops didn't follow the 1993 conference guidelines for responding to abuse complaints, he said, in 2002 they had the Vatican give the new "norms" the force of canon law. Such norms are needed for guidelines to do any good, he said.
"And even the Dallas norms are only good if they are followed. In Philadelphia they weren't followed."
Monday's document tells bishops' conferences how to have their guidelines made into canon law. But it's presented as an option, not a requirement.
The greatest strength of the Vatican recommendations is that "they put victims front and center," Mr. Cafardi said.
The first paragraph says that the bishop or his representative "should be prepared to listen to the victims and their families, and to be committed to their spiritual and psychological assistance." It cites the example of Pope Benedict XVI meeting with victims.
It says that sexual abuse of minors is "a crime prosecuted by civil law" rather than being handled by church law. Except for abuse discovered through the sacrament of confession, it says that reporting laws should be followed.
"Although relations with civil authority will differ in various countries, nevertheless it is important to cooperate with such authority," the document said.
Although it says that any accused priest is presumed innocent until proven guilty, it tells bishops that they can restrict him from ministry "until the accusations are clarified."
The document praises prevention programs, such as those mandated by the U.S. bishops, that teach children and parents to identify and report abuse.
It says seminarians should be taught how to live healthy, celibate lives and that priests should get updated training.
"Priests are to be well informed of the damage done to victims of clerical sexual abuse. They should also be aware of their own responsibilities in this regard in both canon and civil law," the document said.
Vatican officials have long said they can't mandate policies for different nations because the contexts vary. For instance, in some nations victims who report rape have been arrested for having illicit sex.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said this document provides a "common, substantial denominator of fundamental principles and observations that everyone can take into account in making policies for their situations."
David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said it was too little, too late. He believes the church needs structural reform so that one bishop can't protect a perpetrator and the Vatican isn't a bottleneck for complaints from thousands of dioceses.
All that this document requires "is that bishops put down some promises on paper. There's no carrot, there's no stick. It's just a non-binding, vague recommendation," he said.
Ann Rodgers: email@example.com or 412-263-1416. The Associated Press contributed.