Vatican City (AFP) - A Vatican panel said Saturday it would develop "best practices" for Catholic parishes to combat child sex abuse by priests as campaigners demanded that the Church discipline "bad bishops" who cover up for their subordinates.
"In time, we will propose initiatives to encourage local responsibility around the world and the mutual sharing of 'best practices' for the protection of all minors, including programmes for training, education, formation and responses to abuse," the eight-member panel said in a statement.
"We see ensuring accountability in the Church as especially important, including developing means for effective and transparent protocols and processes," said the panel, which includes prominent Boston Archbishop Sean Patrick O'Malley and Irish abuse victim and campaigner Marie Collins.
The panel "adopted the principle that the best interests of a child or vulnerable adult are primary when any decision is made," the statement said.
The panel will stress the importance of raising awareness of "the tragic consequences of sexual abuse and of the devastating consequences of not listening, not reporting suspicion of abuse, and failing to support victims/survivors and their families," it added.
The campaigners' group SNAP rejected the need for new rules, saying: "Catholic officials are obsessively fixed on policies and protocols" in the approach to the paedophilia scourge, charging that the Church was failing to hold to account bishops who cover up the crimes of their underlings.
"In a Church with thousands of rules, no new rules are needed to fire officials who enable child sex crimes," SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) said in a statement. "Every single Catholic prelate on Earth has plenty of power, right now, to demote, discipline, denounce and defrock, clerics who conceal crimes."
It added: "We will believe in the discipline of bad bishops when we see it actually happen."
The Vatican has been more proactive in recent years in investigating allegations of abuse and listening to victims, and has promised zero tolerance for abusers.
But it faces a backlog of thousands of cases and has been criticised for failing to do enough to punish predatory priests or the senior clergymen who covered up for them.
Speaking to reporters after a three-day meeting of the panel at the Vatican -- their first since Pope Francis set up the panel in March -- O'Malley said there must be zero tolerance both for "those who perpetrated the offences" and "those who were negligent" in bringing them to justice.
"We want to make sure to have clear protocols... to make people accountable," said O'Malley, who has been a vocal spokesman for US victims.
In reply to questions, he did not elaborate on how abusive priests and those who protect them could be more effectively handed over to local law enforcement.
-- UN scrutiny --
This was a key demand contained in a February report by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.
The committee called on the Church to remove all clergy suspected of raping or molesting children "and refer the matter to the relevant law enforcement authorities for investigation and prosecution purposes".
On Monday and Tuesday the UN Committee Against Torture will hold hearings on the Vatican, which campaigners see as a fresh chance to examine the Catholic Church's record on child sexual abuse by priests.
Collins, who was abused by a hospital chaplain when she was a teenager, said she had "very positive feelings" about working on the Vatican panel.
She recalled however being "shocked" when some bishops at a symposium on the issue two years ago "felt the problem didn't exist in their country."
O'Malley, too, said he had encountered clergy who told seemed to dismiss predator priests as an American or an Irish problem, not one "you have to face everywhere in the world".