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Vatican Issues Guidance For Sex Abuse Cases

The Vatican sent a letter to bishops around the world Monday offering guidance on dealing with reports of clerical sexual abuse.

But the suggestions in the letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith are vague and nonbinding and fall far short of recommending the tough U.S.-style norms that bar a credibly accused priest from ministry while his case is investigated.

The Vatican document said priority must be given to the victims, prevention programs and priest training. It also stressed to bishops that "it is important to cooperate" with law enforcement — though it did not make reporting cases of abuse mandatory. The Vatican has said such a binding rule would be problematic for priests working in countries with repressive regimes.

Bishops were instructed to follow Rome's indications and draw up their own guidelines for preventing abuse and caring for victims and report them back to the Congregation by May 2012.

The letter reinforces the authority of bishops 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.

Independent lay review boards in the U.S. and Ireland recently reported that some bishops had undermined their work by withholding information.

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 of 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."

The Vatican letter did not mention possible financial compensation for victims. The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, stressed that such measures are to be taken up on a case-by-case basis and that such a recommendation didn't belong in a general letter of guidance being issued by Rome.

The letter stresses that accused priests are presumed innocent until the contrary is proven.

That is also 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 sex abuse scandal exploded in Boston in 2002, direct that 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.

On Friday, Amnesty International listed the Vatican in its annual report of global human rights abuses, citing revelations of clerical abuse around the world and the "enduring failure" of the church to address the crimes properly.

"Such failures included not removing alleged perpetrators from their posts pending proper investigations, not cooperating with judicial authorities to bring them to justice and not ensuring proper reparation to victims," Amnesty said in its report.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reported from Rome for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.

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NPR Staff and Wires