VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Vatican told bishops around the world on Monday that they must make it a global priority to root out sexual abuse of children by priests.
The Roman Catholic Church told bishops in a letter that they should cooperate with civil authorities to end the abuse that has tarnished its image around the world.
"This is telling the world that we mean business. We want to be an example of prevention and care," said one Vatican official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The letter is intended to help every diocese draw up its own tough guidelines, based on a global approach but in line with local civil law. These must be sent to the Vatican for review within a year.
"The responsibility for dealing with delicts (crimes) of sexual abuse of minors by clerics belongs in the first place to the diocesan bishop," the letter says.
It incorporates sweeping revisions made last year to the Church's laws on sexual abuse, which doubled a statute of limitations for disciplinary action against priests and extended the use of fast-track procedures to defrock them.
The Vatican has for years been struggling to control the damage that sexual abuse scandals in the United States and several European countries, including Pope Benedict's native Germany, have done to the Church's image.
"This goes beyond what was done before," the Vatican official said. "It is setting up a standard of best principles, best policy to be followed globally. It makes protection of minors a paramount principle and takes a long-term view because it talks about the formation of future priests."
The scandal has led to the resignation of bishops in several countries. Last year, Benedict begged forgiveness from God and from abuse victims, and said the church would do everything in its power to ensure that it never happened again.
The Vatican official said that if local civil legislation requires that bishops report sex offenders directly to authorities, they are obliged to do so and the guidelines will include this.
Victims groups said they were not satisfied.
"There's no "zero tolerance" or "mandatory reporting" requirement. There's no insistence that bishops warn their flock about child molesting clerics. There's nothing that will make a child safer today or tomorrow or next month or next year," said SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
The letter tells bishops they must be prepared to listen to the victims and their families and be committed to their spiritual and psychological assistance. Bishops must be more careful in choosing candidates for the priesthood in order to weed out early those who are or could become sex abusers.
It says that while those accused of being sexual abusers have to be treated fairly and with due process, those who are known to be abusers must be excluded from the public ministry.
In many of the cases of sexual abuse around the world, local bishops allowed known abusers to be moved from parish to parish instead of being defrocked.