Leading advocates for victims of clergy sex abuse are directing their criticism beyond U.S. Roman Catholic bishops to the highest levels of the church. They're now accusing Vatican leaders of hiding the scope of the molestation problem worldwide -- and demanding reform.
Many church experts say complaints of a Rome cover-up are baseless, meant only to gain advantage in the hundreds of still-pending abuse cases against U.S. dioceses.
But advocates say the revelations that many American bishops sheltered offenders in their own dioceses are just one small part of what they call long-term, systemic wrongdoing.
"The Vatican has been vitally involved," said Richard Sipe, a psychologist and former monk who researches sexuality in the priesthood and advises people suing dioceses. "The Vatican is in the know and has documented its knowledge throughout the centuries."
Sipe, the Rev. Thomas Doyle and former monk Patrick Wall -- all victim advocates -- have compiled a more than 300-page document claiming Vatican officials have known about sex abuse by priests going all the way back to the fourth century.
No one has ever successfully sued the Vatican over molestation, and some legal experts have dismissed such lawsuits as publicity stunts.
The Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America and an expert on the Vatican, said it was unfair to call the entire church hierarchy out of touch.
"It's too easy to just say, 'The Vatican doesn't get it,"' Reese said. "The Vatican has got lots of canon lawyers who are concerned about proper procedures and due process and being considered innocent until proven guilty. And sometimes that's seen as stonewalling."