The Vatican released guidelines yesterday for bishops and other senior officials on dealing with clerical child sex abuse claims, clarifying rules on tackling a decades-old scandal plaguing the church.
The manual, which includes a form to be filled out detailing the alleged crime against minors, does not include any new laws, but was drawn up after Pope Francis called for the procedures to be laid out step-by-step, it said.
It strengthened advice to officials on reporting claims to civil authorities, saying they "should" do so, even if not obliged to by law in the country in question, especially if necessary to protect the person involved or other minors.
Previous official guidelines have told clerics to follow local laws on whether claims should be reported to police.
Critics of the church have long insisted bishops and others should be ordered, not merely urged, to report crimes.
"While this language is incrementally stronger than the Vatican's usual rhetoric, the difference doesn't matter. This is merely a manual - it carries no weight under church law," said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of the abuse tracking site Bishop Accountability.
"If Pope Francis is serious about waging an 'all-out battle' against child sexual abuse, he should order every church official to report allegations to civil authorities," she added.
The Catholic Church has admitted to abuses by predator priests across the world from Australia, Chile, France, Germany, the United States and Ireland.
The Argentinian pope, who has made the fight against sexual abuse and its cover-up one of the priorities of his pontificate, held a special summit on the thorny topic in February 2019.
He called for "a practical handbook indicating the steps to be taken by authorities at key moments when a case emerges".
The Vatican said this was "Version 1.0", which could be updated if and when necessary.
"The real novelty ... is that for the first time the procedure is described in an organised way - from the first report of a possible crime to the definitive conclusion," Archbishop Giacomo Morandi said in an interview with Vatican News.
Archbishop Morandi, the deputy of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which is responsible for processing clergy sex abuse complaints, said clerical assault of minors was "present on all continents".
"We are still witnessing reports emerge of old cases, sometimes many years later. Certainly, some crimes are also recent," he said.
The pope's efforts to combat silence surrounding paedophilia in the church include the passing of a landmark measure last year to oblige those who know about sex abuse to report it to their superiors.
But a top expert in the church's battle against sex abuse warned in June that the coronavirus pandemic had increased the risks to minors as the world's priorities shift.
Bishops all over the world had been "getting a bit lost" as they tried to keep abreast of updates to the law in disparate texts, said Nicholas Seneze, the Vatican correspondent for French Catholic daily La Croix.
The manual advises against simply "transferring the accused cleric" from one parish to another - a solution repeatedly adopted in the past, enabling paedophile priests to prey on more than one congregation.
All reports of abuse, even anonymous ones, "should be appropriately assessed and ... given all due attention".
It repeats the controversial rule that any crime discovered during confession is subject to "the strictest bond of the sacramental seal", and therefore secret, but says the confessor should try to convince the penitent to tell someone else.
It warns against any attempt to try to silence those reporting a crime, but also urges officials to be careful not to sully the good name of those involved or create "a scandal" that could further damage the centuries-old institution.