Pope Benedict has told bishops around the world to promptly report all suspected cases of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests to local police in new guidelines he has issued.
Set out in a letter, the guidelines are the latest effort to eradicate child sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.
It incorporates sweeping revisions made last year to the Church's laws on sexual abuse.
But victims' groups are critical of the move, saying it does not go far enough.
The letter is intended to help every diocese draw up its own guidelines, based on a global approach, but in line with local criminal law. These must be sent to the Vatican for review within a year.
"Sex abuse of minors is not just a canonical delict [crime], but also a crime prosecuted by civil law", the letter said, stressing that local civil law "should always be followed".
The new guidelines say bishops should seek to protect minors and help victims of paedophile priests find assistance and reconciliation.
"The responsibility for dealing with crimes of sexual abuse of minors by clerics belongs in the first place to the diocesan bishop," the letter says.
"The guidelines... seek to protect minors and to help victims in finding assistance and reconciliation," the letter says, adding that it was up to bishops to notify the authorities regarding a suspected paedophile priest.
The clergy should be "helped to recognise the potential signs of abuse" and those suspected of paedophilia should be suspended "until the accusation is clarified".
Bishops are urged to be more careful in choosing candidates for the priesthood and weed out early those who are or could become sex abusers.
The revisions made last year to the Church's laws on sexual abuse doubled a statute of limitations for disciplinary action against priests and extended the use of fast-track procedures to defrock them.
But victims' groups, who have deplored the Vatican's secrecy over sex crimes, have condemned the guidelines.
"As an absolute minimum, there should be a global no-tolerance policy," said the US victims' group Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
"Fundamentally, the reason that Church officials ignore, conceal and mishandle sex crimes is because they can."
The new Vatican guidelines come 20 years after widespread reports of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests in many countries first came to the notice of Church authorities, says the BBC's David Willey in Rome.
Hitherto, the Vatican has often appeared to be more interested in protecting priests from false accusations, rather than in punishing them, our correspondent says.
Now the accent is increasingly upon prompt and full communication to the proper local civil authorities of suspected crimes of sexual abuse of minors.