Pope Francis has issued a new law for the global Catholic Church that makes it compulsory for all clergy to report cases of child sex abuse or the covering up of such abuse to their superiors – but not to civilian authorities.
The law is included in a "motu proprio" – a papal document – called "You are the light of the world," issued Thursday and due to enter into force on June 1.
If any priest, monk, friar or nun "has notice of, or well-founded motives to believe that (a sex crime) has been committed, that person is obliged to report (it) promptly," the motu proprio says.
Crimes heard during confession are excluded.
According to Vatican communications director Andrea Tornielli, while the reporting "obligation was formerly left up to individual consciences, it now becomes a universally established legal precept."
The pope clarifies that reporting should be done to local bishops, unless the alleged offender is a bishop, cardinal or other high-ranking figure; in that case, the Vatican should be alerted.
Victims of pedophile priests will likely not be satisfied, as they have long urged Francis to make it a global rule that clergy should have to flag abuse cases to civilian, not religious authorities.
The motu proprio says this will continue to vary from country to country:
"These norms apply without prejudice to the rights and obligations established in each place by state laws, particularly those concerning any reporting obligations to the competent civil authorities."
Vatican resistance on the issue partly derives from fears that police and prosecutors in certain jurisdictions, such as those with authoritarian regimes, may not be best placed to handle abuse cases.
As well as alleged child abuse and the covering up of such abuse, Thursday's document covers the possession of child pornography and allegations of abuse against nuns, seminarians and novices.
It introduces a requirement for all Catholic dioceses to have "easily accessible" abuse reporting systems in place by June 2020, and ensure care for victims.
They and their families should be treated "with dignity and respect" and offered spiritual and medical support, including psychological help, the motu proprio says.
As for bishops, the papal document sets a 90-day deadline for their investigations, which can be extended in special circumstances. It allows them to take precautionary measures against suspect offenders.
If abuse or cover-up allegations are substantiated by a bishop's investigation, the case is passed on to Vatican disciplinary bodies, which can go as far as expelling offenders from priesthood.
The motu proprio also states that bishops probing abuse cases can call on the help of non-religious experts, such as private investigators, lawyers, doctors or psychologists.
The Catholic Church has been in turmoil for years over worldwide reports of clerical child abuse, and the Vatican has repeatedly pledged to clean up the house.
Hosting a crisis summit with bishops from around the world in February, Francis said the church would stop covering up the crimes of pedophile priests "as was usual in the past."