Pope Benedict has issued new guidelines to bishops, encouraging them to report all suspected cases of sexual abuse of minors by priests.
Mailed to bishops around the world, the guidelines are the latest effort to eradicate child sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.
Bishops are told to cooperate with police but they are not required to report allegations to the authorities if local law does not require it.
"Sex abuse of minors is not just a canonical delict but also a crime prosecuted by civil law," the letter said, stressing civil law "should always be followed".
"The guidelines ... seek to protect minors and to help victims in finding assistance and reconciliation."
David Clohessy from the US victims group Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) says the new rules are meaningless.
"Even if you do believe that this represents a tiny belated, begrudging baby step forward, he has to acknowledge that there's not a single child on the planet who's safer today because of these words by the Vatican," he said.
Mr Clohessy says the guidelines are belated and do not go far enough.
"As an absolute minimum there should be a global no-tolerance policy," he said.
"Fundamentally the reason that Church officials ignore, conceal and mishandle sex crimes is because they can."
Britain's National Secular Society warns the guidelines say bishops have to report cases to secular authorities only if they do not prejudice the "sacramental internal forum".
"Which probably means cases should be heard, where it is possible, in secret under canon law, which provides for no more serious penalty than defrocking, and even that ... only the most extreme cases," it said in a press release.
The Vatican has come under pressure in recent years over paedophilia, and the scandal of child-abuser priests peaked last year with a string of high-profile revelations in Belgium, Germany and Ireland.
The Holy See has been accused of being slow to out paedophile priests and last month, Amnesty International said it was still failing to meet international obligations to protect children.