Bishops of dioceses around the world have an obligation to work to prevent clerical sexual abuse and to ensure that priests in their dioceses do not commit acts of abuse, said Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
"If, unfortunately, these crimes are verified, they fall under the exclusive competence of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which, however, always needs the assistance and collaboration of ordinaries and well-prepared canonists to act effectively and prudently," he said in a speech at Rome's Pontifical Urbanian University.
The Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, printed what it described as "ample excerpts" from the speech Thursday.
The cardinal spoke during a March 9-10 special course at the university looking specifically at "crimes against the sacrament of penance." However, he spoke in general about the crimes the church defines as "more grave delicts," which includes the sexual abuse of minors.
The ordinaries of dioceses and their collaborators, he said, "have the obligation to prevent and to be vigilant in order to avoid the commission of such crimes."
In early February, Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, said the commission had drawn up recommendations for Pope Francis aimed at making bishops and superiors of religious orders accountable for following church norms regarding child protection and the handling of allegations of abuse made against a priest.
In the speech excerpted by the Vatican newspaper, Müller said in the past 15 years, the church has faced "a serious challenge in which the credibility of its teaching has been placed in doubt because of certain actions -- the 'graviora delicta' [more grave crimes] -- on the part of some of its sons and by the lack of a response to confront it."
"It is not enough for us to say that it is a matter of lies sown by enemies of the church, who nevertheless profit from the circumstances," Müller said.
"The obligation to seek justice in the cases of the 'graviora delicta' can in no way be considered opposed to the obligations of charity or mercy," he said. "Neither charity as the highest virtue consistent with love of God and one's neighbor, nor mercy as the inclination of compassion and assistance for the misery of others, can be true if they are introduced on the basis of injustice."