Although the city state within Rome is tiny, and very few children live there, the sweeping legal changes reflect a desire to show that the Catholic Church is finally acting against clerical child abuse after decades of scandals around the world.
The changes signed by the pope - who is Vatican head of state as well as head of the Church - make it obligatory for superiors and co-workers to report abuse allegations; punish failure to report with dismissal, fines or jail; and offer assistance to victims and families.
There are also provisions to protect vulnerable adults.
It is the first time a unified and detailed policy for the protection of children has been compiled for the Vatican and its embassies and universities outside the city state.
The law sets up procedures for reporting suspected abuse, imposes more screening of prospective employees, and sets strict guidelines for adult interaction with children and the use of social media.
The Church’s credibility has been badly tarnished in much of the world by abuse scandals in Ireland, Chile, Australia, France, the United States, Poland, Germany and elsewhere, in which it has paid billions of dollars in damages to victims and been forced to close parishes.
“Laws that make even one child safer should be applauded,” said Anne Barrett Doyle of the U.S.-based abuse tracking group BishopAccountability.org.
“While the action is no-risk and limited in scope, it is constructive. It’s a baby step in the right direction,” she said, calling for the pope to undertake “bold, broad reforms” by changing universal Church law.
Senior bishops from around the world met in the Vatican last month to chart a strategy for ending abuse. Victims said the meeting merely produced a restatement of old promises.
The scandals have reached the upper echelons of the Vatican itself. Cardinal George Pell, jailed this month for six years for abusing boys in his native Australia, had served as the Vatican treasurer and a member of the pope’s innermost council of cardinals.
Vatican diplomatic missions have also been involved in scandals in the past. In 2013, Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, the Vatican’s ambassador to the Dominican Republic, was charged with paying boys for sex. He was recalled and kept in detention in the Vatican but died in 2015 before his trial.