Pope Francis on Saturday scrapped his proposed tribunal to prosecute bishops who failed to protect their flocks from paedophile priests and instead established new legal procedures to remove them if the Vatican finds they were negligent.
The new procedures seek to answer long-standing demands by survivors of abuse that the Vatican hold bishops accountable for botching abuse cases. Victims have long accused bishops of covering up for paedophiles, moving rapists from parish to parish rather than reporting them to police — and suffering no consequences.
In the law, Francis acknowledged that the church’s canonical code already allowed for a bishop to be removed for “grave reasons.” But he said he wanted to precisely state that negligence, especially negligence in handling abuse cases, counts as one of those reasons that can cost a bishop his job.
Bishops “must undertake a particular diligence in protecting those who are the weakest among their flock,” Francis wrote in the law, called a motu proprio.
The statute effectively does away with a proposal approved by Francis last year to establish an accountability tribunal inside the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to hear negligence cases. Francis’ sex abuse advisory board had recommended that the Congregation prosecute negligent bishops because it already oversees actual sex abuse cases against clergy.
But that proposal posed a host of legal and bureaucratic issues. In the end, Francis decided to streamline the procedure and task the four Vatican offices that already handle bishop issues to investigate and punish negligence cases.
As a result, the new procedures don’t amount to any revolution in bishop accountability since those four offices already had the authority to investigate bishops for wrongdoing. The new law, though, specifically states that negligence in handling abuse cases is a cause for dismissal.
The main US victims’ group, SNAP, said it was “extraordinarily skeptical” that the new procedures would amount to any wave of dismissals since popes have always had the power to oust bishops but haven’t wielded it.
“A ‘process’ is helpful only if it’s used often enough to deter wrongdoing. We doubt this one will be,” SNAP’s David Clohessy said.
In the law, Francis said a bishop can be removed if his actions or omissions cause “grave harm” — physical, moral, spiritual or financial — to individuals or communities.
The bishop himself doesn’t need to be morally guilty. It’s enough if he is purely lacking in the diligence required of his office.
The procedures call for the Vatican to start an investigation when “serious evidence” is provided that a bishop was negligent. The bishop can defend himself. At the end of the investigation, the Vatican can prepare a decree removing the bishop or ask him to resign. If he doesn’t, the Vatican can issue a removal decree.