Pope Francis has approved new procedures for removing bishops who are negligent in sexual abuse issues and made it clear that lack of diligence in cases involving minors is grounds for dismissal, the Vatican said Saturday.
The new measures are spelled out in an Apostolic Letter in the form of a personal edict, according to the Vatican press office.
The decree comes in response to demands by abuse victims and their supporters to hold bishops accountable if they fail to protect their flocks from pedophiles.
The effect of the letter is to lower the standard necessary for a bishop to be removed from office in cases of negligence in such issues, according to the official Vatican Radio.
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 in handling abuse cases, counts as one of those reasons.
Bishops “must undertake a particular diligence in protecting those who are the weakest among their flock,” Francis wrote, referring to minors and vulnerable adults.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said in a note accompanying a statement on the letter that the pontiff had also established a group of lawyers to help him make decisions that could result in the dismissal of a bishop.
The statute effectively does away with a proposal approved by Pope Francis last year to establish an accountability tribunal inside the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to hear negligence cases.
His sex abuse advisory board had recommended that the Congregation prosecute negligent bishops because it is already responsible for overseeing actual sex abuse cases against clergy, the Associated Press reports. But that proposal posed a host of legal and bureaucratic issues that put into question the existing command and control structure of the Catholic Church hierarchy.
In the end, Francis decided to streamline the procedure and task the four Vatican offices that are already in charge of handling bishop issues to investigate and punish negligence cases.The new procedures will not be retroactive but will apply to cases beginning in September.
Victims groups expressed doubt that the new procedures would result in any wave of firings of bishops, the AP reports.
The main U.S. victims’ group, SNAP, said it was “extraordinarily skeptical” about the new procedures since popes have always had the power to oust complicit 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.
Even before the new procedures were announced, two U.S. bishops who bungled abuse cases resigned on their own: Bishop Robert Finn in Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., and Archbishop John Nienstedt in St. Paul and Minneapolis. They were presumably pressured by the Vatican to step down after civil authorities got involved.