ROME — Fending off accusations that it covered up abuse and obstructed justice, the Vatican on Monday spelled out for the first time that it now strongly urges bishops to report abuse cases to civil authorities if required by local law.
Victims of abuse by priests have long argued that the Vatican's rules requiring confidentiality and the avoidance of scandal were often tantamount to obstructing civil justice, an argument that has contributed to the Catholic Church paying more than $2 billion in abuse settlements in the United States alone in the past decade.
On Monday, the Vatican posted online for the first time a guide to the procedures it requires bishops to follow in abuse cases. It says that in the preliminary stages of any investigation into alleged abuse, "civil law concerning reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities should always be followed."
Although not all the guidelines have the force of canon law, Vatican observers said that posting them online was an important step toward explaining internal Vatican procedures that have often been criticized as opaque and ambiguous. The Vatican is currently revising the norms for how bishops worldwide should handle sex abuse cases.
Vatican officials say that they have been advising bishops to follow civil law in reporting abuse cases for some time — yet they acknowledge that those norms were often unevenly applied and not always clear.
Asked how bishops were expected to know to report abuse to civil authorities if canon law did not spell that out, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said, "because they're citizens of a state." But he conceded that such reporting had not always happened. "No one is saying things were perfect," he said.
Lombardi said the Vatican had posted the guide online in an effort at "clarification and transparency."
The guide explains how the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the powerful Vatican office that handles cases of priestly abuse, can authorize a local bishop to pursue various procedures against a priest accused of abuse, including a judicial penal trial.
Last week, Pope Benedict XVI faced fresh accusations of how he personally had handled similar cases as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. On Friday, the Associated Press published a letter indicating that in the 1980s, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now the pope, had waited more than three years to respond to a bishop in Oakland, Calif., who had asked to defrock a priest who had molested children, only to advise that the matter needed more time and that "the good of the universal church" needed to be considered in reaching a decision.