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The Vatican made clear today that Catholic bishops, as well as others overseeing sex abuse cases, must report suspected abuse to the police. The statement marks the first time the Catholic Church has been explicit about reporting abuse.

As NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, church officials may be reacting to critics who say it has been protecting pedophile priests.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: The statement appeared on the Vatican's Web site after the latest blow on Friday - a 1985 letter that showed Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict, delayed defrocking a priest who had abused children. The statement was simple, quote: Civil law concerning reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities should always be followed.

William McMurry, who has represented hundreds of victims in Kentucky, says it's a little late in the game.

Mr. WILLIAM MCMURRY (Attorney): But it is certainly a positive sign that in the future, bishops will be held accountable not only by the civil authorities, but perhaps by the pope himself, if they fail to report known or suspected child abuse to the police.

HAGERTY: McMurry notes that the U.S. bishops adopted this policy in 2002, and so this won't cause a flood of new prosecutions here. But before, there was always quote, wiggle room. He says the Vatican's own documents could be interpreted as urging bishops to keep sex abuse cases secret. Now, he says, the Vatican is being clear.

Mr. MCMURRY: It's not up to that bishop to decide whether or not it's a felony, a misdemeanor, whether a statute of limitations has run. His duty is to follow state law. And state law requires reporting known or suspected child abuse.

HAGERTY: The Vatican says it's always been church policy to report sex abuse cases to the police. But Tom Doyle, a canon lawyer who works with victims, says that is untrue.

Mr. TOM DOYLE (Canon Attorney): There is absolutely no evidence ever. In fact, there's a number of statements by high Vatican officials, including Cardinal Bertone, the papal secretary of state, that say quite the opposite, exactly the opposite.

HAGERTY: In 2002, Tarcisio Bertone, who was then the Vatican's second-ranking official said quote: In my opinion, the demand that a bishop be obligated to contact the police in order to denounce a priest who has admitted the offense of pedophilia, is unfounded.

Doyle says the Vatican's new statement will affect sex abuse cases overseas much more than in the U.S., since bishops in Europe and Latin America have generally not turned priests over to the police. But victims groups are still skeptical.

Mr. DAVID CLOHESSY (Director, Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests): The biggest loophole is that there's just no enforcement.

HAGERTY: David Clohessy, he is director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

Mr. CLOHESSY: We don't think any of the world's 5,000 bishops are suddenly going to step up and say, oops, I better call the police about this priest or that priest.

HAGERTY: Just look at the U.S., he says. While bishops have theoretically had their zero tolerance policy for eight years, there have still been a lot of cases in which bishops failed to turn over suspected abusers to police. What this latest move tells Nicholas Cafardi, a canon lawyer at Duquesne University, is that the Vatican is feeling the pressure.

Mr. NICHOLAS CAFARDI (Canon Lawyer, Duquesne University): Anytime you're involved in a crisis like this, where there are multiple offenses, the best thing you can do is get out in front of the crisis and tell people what we did wrong. If you don't do that, then you can expect that there will be revelation day after day after day. And it really is like a death by a thousand cuts.

HAGERTY: And that's what's been happening.

Mr. CAFARDI: That's exactly what's been happening.

HAGERTY: This response may seem slow to the secular world, Vatican observers say. But in Vatican time, it's warp speed.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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