The Vatican now says that Catholic bishops and others overseeing sex abuse cases must report suspected abusers to the police. The statement appeared on the Vatican's Web site after the latest blow came on Friday: a 1985 letter that showed Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, delayed defrocking a priest in California who had abused children.
The statement was simple: "Civil law concerning reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities should always be followed."
"It's a little bit late in the game," says William McMurry, who has represented hundreds of victims in Kentucky, "but it is certainly a positive sign that in the future, bishops will be held accountable not only by the civil authorities but perhaps by the pope himself if they fail to report known or suspected child abuse to the police."
No More Wiggle Room
McMurry says that the U.S. bishops adopted this policy in 2002, and so this won't cause a flood of new prosecutions here. He says before this statement, there was always "wiggle room," because the Vatican's own documents could be interpreted as urging bishops to keep the sex abuse cases secret. Now, he says, the Vatican is being clear.
"It's not up to that bishop to decide whether or not it's a felony, a misdemeanor, whether a statute of limitations has run," he says. "His duty is to follow state law, and state law requires reporting known or suspected child abuse."
The Vatican says that it has always been church policy to report sex abuse cases to the police. Not so, says Tom Doyle, a canon lawyer who works with victims.
"In fact, there's a number of statements by high Vatican officials — including Cardinal [Tarcisio] Bertone, the papal secretary of state — that say quite the opposite, exactly the opposite," he says.
In 2002, Bertone, the Vatican's second-ranking official, said, "In my opinion, the demand that a bishop be obligated to contact the police in order to denounce a priest who has admitted the offense of pedophilia is unfounded."
Doyle says the Vatican's new statement will affect sex abuse cases overseas much more than in the U.S., since bishops in Europe and Latin America have generally not turned priests over to the police.
The Question Of Enforcement
But victims groups remain skeptical.
"The biggest loophole is that there is just no enforcement," says David Clohessy, director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "We don't think any of the world's 5,000 bishops are suddenly going to suddenly step up and say, 'Whoops! I better call the police about this priest or that priest.' "
Just look at the U.S., he says. While bishops have had their zero-tolerance policy for eight years, he says there are many cases in which bishops failed to turn over suspected abusers to police.
In Vatican Time, Response Has Been Rapid
What this latest move tells Nicholas Cafardi, a canon lawyer at Duquesne University, is that the Vatican is feeling the pressure.
"Anytime you're involved in a crisis like this, where there are multiple offenses, the best thing you can do is get out in front of the crisis and tell people what we did was wrong," he says. "If you don't do that, then you can expect that there will be revelations day after day after day, and it really is like a death by 1,000 cuts."
And while this response may seem slow to the secular world, Vatican observers say in Vatican time, it's warp speed.