VICTIMS of paedophile priests reacted with fury yesterday after new guidelines from the Vatican insisted bishops, rather than gardai, should deal with child abuse cases in the first instance.
A document drawn up by Cardinal William Levada, the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, concludes that the responsibility for dealing with child abuse cases within the church "belongs in the first place to bishops".
In the past, there have been repeated accusations of cover-ups by the church and claims that bishops around the world have shielded child abusers.
The Vatican claimed that the document, to be circulated to all clergy worldwide, was "an important new step" to cleanse the church of recurring child abuse scandals and urged bishops to co-operate with police in reporting priests who rape and molest children.
Cardinal Levada, head of the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog, instructed bishops to send their updated national guidelines for preventing abuse by May 2012.
The guidelines are aimed at "facilitating the correct application" of rules that Pope Benedict XVI issued last year on handling sex abuse.
Besides repeating that suspected crimes should be reported to police, it called on bishops to "investigate every allegation of sexual abuse of a minor by a cleric".
It also made distribution of child pornography a crime in canon law.
There was no immediate reaction from Irish church leaders Cardinal Sean Brady and Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin.
But this latest Vatican instruction highlighted the continuing gulf between Rome and Irish abuse victims.
Maeve Lewis of the One in Four survivors' support group welcomed the new guidelines but said they were dangerously flawed and that bishops had little expertise or experience in recognising child abuse.
"It is not acceptable that reporting an allegation is at the discretion of a bishop," she said.
"The Vatican has missed an opportunity to deal definitively with the sex abuse scandal and to protect thousands of children throughout the Catholic world."