The document marks the latest effort by the Vatican to show it's serious about rooting out priestly pedophiles and preventing abuse following the eruption on a global scale of the abuse scandal last year with thousands of victims coming forward.
But it was unlikely to impress advocates for victims who have long blamed the power of bishops bent on protecting the church and its priests for fueling the scandal. Without fear of punishment themselves, bishops frequently moved pedophile priests from parish to parish rather than reporting them to police or punishing them under church law.
"Bishops ignore and conceal child sex crimes because they can," said the main U.S. victims' group Survivors' Network for Those Abused by Priests in a statement issued before the letter was released. "So any 'reform' that doesn't diminish bishops' power and discretion is virtually meaningless."
Critically, the letter reinforces bishops' authority in dealing with abuse cases. It says independent lay review boards that have been created in some countries to oversee the church's child protection policies "cannot substitute" for bishops' judgment and power.
Recently, such lay review committees in the U.S. and Ireland have reported that some bishops "failed miserably" in following their own guidelines and had thwarted the boards' work by withholding information and by enacting legal hurdles that made ensuring compliance impossible.
In the letter, the Vatican told the bishops "it is important to cooperate" with civil law enforcement authorities and follow civil reporting requirements, though it doesn't make such reporting mandatory. The Vatican has said such a binding rule would be problematic for priests working in countries with repressive regimes.
The letter told the bishops' conferences to draft guidelines for preventing abuse and caring for victims and report them back to the Congregation by May 2012. It said bishops should be prepared to listen to victims, to create "safe environment" programs for minors and to better screen seminarians and ensure they receive proper training about celibacy and the damage done to victims of sex abuse.
The letter stresses that accused priests are presumed innocent until the contrary is proven.
That too is the case in the U.S. norms, but they bar credibly accused priests from any public church work while claims against them are under investigation. The U.S. norms, enacted after the abuse scandal exploded in Boston in 2002, says diocesan lay review boards help bishops oversee cases. Clergy found guilty are permanently barred from public ministry and, in some cases, ousted from the priesthood.
The guidance given to bishops in the letter Monday falls far short of those recommendations: It merely reminds bishops that they are "always able to limit the exercise of the cleric's ministry until the accusations are clarified."