Angelo Bagnasco
Head of the Italian Bishops' Conference Angelo Bagnasco

A leading Italian cleric says the Vatican's decision to exempt bishops from being required to report cases of suspected child sex abuse is partly to protect victims.

Angelo Bagnasco, head of the Italian Bishops' Conference and once considered as a future pope, told reporters that although the Vatican requires national laws to be respected, the decision to adopt the policy has been taken in part to protect victims who may not want to press charges.

"What is important is to respect the will of the victims and their relatives, who may not want to report the abuse, for personal reasons," he said. "We need to be careful that we, in the clergy, do not undermine the right to privacy, discretion and confidentiality, and the right of the victims to not be 'exposed' in the public square."

According to the new guidelines, clergy are under no obligation to inform the authorities about suspected abuse but have a "moral duty" to act to protect the vulnerable and "contribute to the common good".

The new policy has sparked fury among victim support groups, which condemned the "stunning, depressing and irresponsible contradiction between what Vatican officials say about abuse, and do about abuse," AFP reported.

The UN has also criticised the policy, saying in its report that it enables "priests to rape children".

The international organisation has also urged the Vatican to immediately remove all clergy who are known or suspected child abusers.

"The Committee is gravely concerned that the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children, and has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by and the impunity of the perpetrators," read the report.

The Church has repeatedly been accused by victims of covering up abuse by priests and simply moving clerics suspected of paedophilia from one diocese to another, rather than reporting them.

Bishops in possession of information on possible abuse cases have been required by the Vatican to report it to the authorities since 2010, but only in those countries where they are required to do so under national law, the Local said.

Pope Francis has defended the Church, saying it has done more than "any other institution" in tackling paedophilia.