VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Italy’s Roman Catholic bishops on Thursday enacted a new policy on reporting suspected cases of sexual abuse by priests, but they stopped short of making it mandatory to inform police at first instance.
Under the policy, church authorities would carry out a preliminary investigation then decide whether to refer it to police.
The measure drew a skeptical response from victims’ groups mindful of past Church cover-ups of abuses by clergymen.
The policy does however go further than that laid out by Pope Francis earlier this month which mandated the world’s one million priests and nuns to report all suspicion of sexual abuse by clerics of any level to their superiors.
The papal document left it up to individual national bishops conferences to decide whether to report suspected abuse to police, depending on local law.
Bishop Lorenzo Ghizzoni hailed the Italian policy, made at a four-day bishops’ meeting, as going beyond what was required by universal Roman Catholic Church law.
“We think this is an important step forward,” he told a news conference.
Ghizzoni said Church authorities would first carry out a preliminary investigation to determine if the accusation against a priest was credible and, if so, inform police and the Vatican at the same time. The Church would also encourage victims to go directly to police, he said.
The pope’s move was an attempt at taking forceful action against the sexual abuse of children by priests in thousands of cases across the world dating back at least three decades.
The abuse and cover-ups by authorities have battered the Church’s credibility and forced it to pay billions of dollars in settlements to victims.
Victims and their advocates have long called for Church law to be changed to make reporting to civil authorities mandatory.
“I don’t find this terribly reassuring,” Anne Barrett-Doyle of U.S. abuse tracking group BishopAccountability.org, told Reuters. “We have had many examples of bishops withholding allegations that later proved to be true.”
Francesco Zanardi of the Italian victims group Rete L’Abuso, was also skeptical.
“If the pope really wanted to do something, he would just change Church law to order all bishops to report all suspected cases directly to police for them to investigate,” he told Reuters.
In February, a report by the United Nations Commission on the Rights of the Child criticized Italy for what it said was a low number of investigations and criminal prosecutions of child abuse by clergy in Italy.
The commission asked Italy to establish an independent body to investigate suspected sexual abuse by clergy. This has not yet happened.
Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Angus MacSwan