The Vatican has issued new rules for the Roman Catholic Church to deal with cases of priests accused of pedophilia. Church officials worldwide are being urged to report suspected cases directly to the Vatican.
Pope John Paul II says pedophilia is one of the "graver offenses" against church law and has publicly apologized to victims of sex abuse by priests in the past.
The Roman Catholic Church has often in recent years been rocked by scandals involving priests who sexually abused children.
The steps the Church is taking to deal with the problem first came to the attention of Vatican watchers on Tuesday. As is often the case with matters that are considered by the Roman Catholic Church to be too sensitive to be made public, the matter was addressed very quietly.
The Church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which deals with issues of faith and morals, issued guidelines on how to deal with cases of priests who are accused of pedophilia.
Roman Catholic bishops and heads of religious orders worldwide received a letter written by the head of the Vatican Congregation, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, outlining how to deal with the problem.
The letter said that if a local church official became aware of "even a hint" of a case of pedophilia, "he must open an investigation and inform Rome."
Cardinal Ratzinger - a close aide of Pope John Paul - added "We hope that not only will these serious crimes be avoided but, above all, that the holiness of the clergy and the faithful will be protected by the necessary sanctions and by the pastoral care offered by the bishops and others responsible."
According to the new rules, local Church tribunals will hear the cases. The hearings will be covered by secrecy, and the tribunals will rule whether a priest is guilty or not. Those found guilty of pedophilia can be dismissed from the Church and stripped of their priestly functions.
While the Vatican claims the new rules are aimed at protecting the rights of the accused, critics say that the impression is that the Church is trying to conceal abuses by its members and protect perpetrators rather than their victims.