Catholic Church Tries to Quiet Pedophilia Scandal with New Policy, While Atheists Push for Pope's Arrest in the UK

The church drops its defense posture, edits its guidelines to read that church leaders should report clerical sex abuse to civil authorities.

For the first time in canonical history, the Vatican has made clear in public guidelines that bishops and other church leaders should report clerical sex abuse to local authorities if required by law.

The move is a departure from recent church statements, which claimed the sex abuse accusations were part of a conspiratorial effort to undermine the pope and the Roman Catholic Church.

As a steady stream of church sex abuse cases come to light, Pope Benedict XVI's handling of confirmed molesters before he became pope in 2005 has been severely questioned. Just this weekend, a 1985 letter bearing his signature confirmed many critics' allegations. In that letter, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as he was then known, resisted calls to defrock a known pedophile priest in Northern California.

Ratzinger wrote, on behalf of the Catholic Church's doctrinal office, which he headed: "This court, although it regards the arguments presented in favour of removal in this case to be of grave significance, nevertheless deems it necessary to consider the good of the Universal Church." He then suggested that the priest in question be provided with "as much paternal care as possible."

Criticism of the pope's role in the mishandling of cases involving priestly abuse have been mostly concentrated in Europe and the United States, ranging from a case in Munich, Germany to another in Wisconsin. And even more sex abuse victims are set to break the silence. A Canadian organization,, says it has gathered more than 400 testimonies from men and women who say they were also molested by priests.

The change in guidelines relating to reporting sex abuse was made available on the Vatican's website on Monday. Fashioned as a layman's guide to understanding the church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's procedures concerning sexual abuse allegations.

The new line reads, "Civil law concerning reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities should always be followed."

Incredibly, as obvious as that line reads, nothing like it has ever been included in the Vatican's previously known and public procedures for managing investigations and trials of suspected abuse.

But victims are not assuaged by that single line edit -- nor are they sure that it really indicates a policy change, perhaps particularly because the Vatican has made no official statements regarding the reason for the change.

"Let's keep this in perspective: it's one sentence and it's virtually nothing unless and until we see tangible signs that bishops are responding. One sentence can't immediately reverse centuries of self-serving secrecy," Joelle Casteix, a regional director of SNAP, the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests, told the AP. She says it would be more effective to fire or demote church leaders who have "enabled abuse and hid crimes, than to add one sentence to a policy that is rarely followed with consistency."

According to the Vatican's U.S. counsel, a 1965 document contained an implicit understanding of the need to follow civil laws. A Vatican spokesman says the civil reporting requirement has been the internal policy of the CDF since 2003. And U.S. bishops made reporting a requirement a year earlier, after flare-up in sex abuse cases in 2002.

The single line addition to the public guidelines this week represents the first time the universal church has made cooperation with civil law enforcement church policy. And the edit comes at the heels of Benedict having told Irish bishops in March that such reporting and cooperation is necessary.

Meanwhile, anger continues to build up. Atheist luminaries Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are among those calling to arrest the pope for "crimes against humanity" during his scheduled September visit to Britain. International law allows an arrest for crimes against humanity outside a person's own country. (This same legal principle was used to arrest Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet during a 1998 medical visit to the U.K.)

"The institutionalized concealment of child rape is a crime under any law," Hitchens said of the arrest efforts.

In the face of so many critics and victims, today's Vatican policy change sounds a lot like damage control. Already the church is trying to turn the page.

Today, the official Vatican newspaper published an editorial that praised the church for being "the only institution to address this problem that concerns all of society in an exemplary manner."

Daniela Perdomo is a staff writer and editor at AlterNet. Follow Daniela on Twitter. Write her at danielaalternet [at] gmail [dot] com.
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