"Only if these methods prove useless, the bishop and the superior may move ahead with the judicial process," said the Rev. Gianfranco Ghirlanda, an influential Vatican canon lawyer and dean of the canon law faculty at Gregorian University in Rome.
He asserts in an article published Saturday that church leaders have no legal or moral responsibilities if such abuse does occur.
Last month, the head of a Vatican council, Archbishop Julián Herranz, also said that the bishops should not be required to turn over records on abusive priests to prosecutors, according to The New York Times in its Saturday editions.
Roman Catholic officials in the United States told the Times that the comments by Father Ghirlanda and Archbishop Herranz may serve as a warning to American bishops who are to meet in Dallas next month not to propose anything too far-reaching if they try to formulate a binding national policy on sexual abuse, the Times says.
Any policy the American bishops produce is subject to approval by the Vatican, and could be held up as a standard for the church in other parts of the world.
Ghirlanda also says bishops should avoid telling congregations that their parish priests sexually abused someone if the bishops believe the priests will not abuse again.
Ghirlanda insisted that church leaders must protect the "good name" of their priests and only a guilty cleric truly is responsible for his actions.
"From a canon law perspective, the bishop and the superior are neither morally nor judicially responsible for the acts committed by one of their clergy," said Ghirlanda, dean of canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.
The article is in the influential Jesuit magazine Civilta Cattolica, which often reflects Vatican thinking.
David Clohessy, national director of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said he found it disturbing that the article appeared to be contradicting Pope John Paul II's statement at last month's Vatican summit on sex abuse.
"It seems like the pope was very clear last month: there's no place in the ministry for these men - none - and it's a crime," Clohessy said. "Ever since, we've seen church leaders hemming and hawing and making exceptions."
The Vatican is struggling to deal with worldwide allegations of sexual abuse by priests.
Ghirlanda argued that a priest whose past acts of abuse were revealed to his congregation "would be totally discredited in front of his parochial community and in fact would be blocked from any effective pastoral action."
"If the bishop fears the priest could again commit a crime, then he must not entrust to the priest a parish, but must act in a different way."
However, Ghirlanda also said priests should not be forced to take psychological tests to assess the likelihood of their committing abuse.
"To our thinking, it's not admissible that the incriminated cleric be forced to undergo a psychological investigation to determine if his personality is inclined to commit the crimes in question," the article said.
American church officials are accused of covering up sexual misconduct by priests, in some cases by moving known abusers from job to job. The church has paid millions of dollars in damages to victims and faces numerous lawsuits.
Dozens of priests have been suspended or forced to resign. Many dioceses also are informing local prosecutors of prior abuse allegations against priests.
This week, a Baltimore priest was shot, allegedly by a man who claimed the priest abused him, while another priest accused of sexual abuse apparently committed suicide in Maryland.
The ongoing U.S. scandal prompted last month's extraordinary meeting at the Vatican between Pope John Paul II, 12 of the 13 American cardinals and some top American bishops. The clergymen chose not to set strict rules before a June 13-15 meeting of American bishops in Dallas.
Rules agreed on by the bishops in June will be passed back to the Vatican for ratification.
Ghirlanda, in an apparent reference to victims' civil suits against dioceses, also wrote that the relationship between senior church officials and their priests is not comparable to that of an employer and employee.
"The cleric doesn't 'work' for the bishop or for the superior, but is at the service of God," Ghirlanda wrote.
He added, "The cleric's right of good name must be protected by the bishop and superior. Therefore any act that has public repercussions, undertaken by the bishop or superior in dealing with one of his clerics is legitimate only if the good of the community requires it and if the bishop and superior have reached moral certainty."
In other developments:
The documents obtained by The Hartford Courant show the diocese resisted compensation for Gavin O'Connor's alleged victim, but paid the priest as much as $17,000 in 1989.
At the time, O'Connor had been accused of molesting boys for years.
The payment was condemned by the plaintiff's attorney in court as a payoff intended to buy O'Connor's silence in the case pending against him and the diocese, the paper reported. The diocese denied that claim.
Egan is now archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York.
Last month, Law alienated some parishioners by discouraging a proposed coalition of lay groups.
The Rev. G. Neville Rucker, retired since 1987, lives at Nazareth House, an assisted-living facility for priests in West Los Angeles. He had lived at Corpus Christi church in Pacific Palisades until his April 23 removal.
Archbishop Elden Curtiss acknowledges that he talked with Norfolk Sacred Heart kindergarten teacher Linda Hammond, but did not say if he asked her to resign. She did not resign.