Approval had been expected after differences in the original plan were worked out by a joint US-Vatican commission in November.
The policy allows bishops to conduct a confidential, preliminary inquiry when a molestation claim is made to determine whether it is plausible. If it is, the accused priest is to be put on leave and then must go before a clerical tribunal to determine his guilt or innocence.
The old policy that the bishops approved in Dallas five months ago allowed church leaders to pull priests out of their jobs as soon as they are accused. Vatican officials expressed concern that the approach denied priests due process.
The Vatican released a letter from Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re to Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, informing him of the Holy See’s approval and pledging its support to “combat and to prevent such evil”.
The Vatican announcement came three days after Pope John Paul II accepted the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law as archbishop of Boston, removing a figure who was a flash point for victims’ groups, lay Catholics and some priests.
Re said: “it appears necessary to devote every available resource to restoring the public image of the Catholic priesthood.” The Vatican - together with the bishops of the United States - “feels duty-bound” to defend “the good name of the overwhelming majority of priests and deacons.”
The Italian prelate, who heads the Congregation of Bishops, called sex abuse “one of the most serious offences” a priest can commit and noted that the American policy can lead to dismissal from the priesthood. But Re noted that the revised policy protects “inviolable human rights” of the accused.
The cardinal asked the American bishops to continue their meetings with the heads of religious orders who raised issues of concern about their members coming under the policy.
Re’s letter stressed that the Vatican will not tolerate sex abuse crimes against children, saying that the pope has affirmed “the Holy See’s aversion to this betrayal of the trust which the faithful rightly place in Christ’s ministers, and to ensure that the guilty will be appropriately punished”.