Updated: Feb 19, 2020
Pope Francis has approved a system of reporting and judging bishops who fail to protect minors, a critical development in the Vatican’s actions on sexual abuse.
Announced June 10, the move authorizes three Vatican offices to receive and investigate complaints against bishops, and establishes a special tribunal under the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to determine whether a bishop is guilty of “abuse of office.”
The pope still has the ultimate say in requesting a bishop’s resignation, but as a Vatican spokesman said, the tribunal’s findings would normally be accepted and acted upon by the pope.
For years, bishops’ accountability has been the missing element in the Vatican’s approach to sexual abuse by priests. Despite the many cases of mismanagement and negligence on the part of bishops who turned a blind eye or moved abusive priests from parish to parish, very few bishops have been removed from office.
That’s because, until now, there was no systematic process for discipline and dismissal when such failures occurred.
There are several remarkable aspects of Pope Francis’ decision:
— It demonstrated that bishops are no longer considered “untouchable,” and will face serious consequences for their actions or inaction.
— It made clear that bishops answer not only to the pope, but also to their people. That reflects a new willingness at the Vatican to implement the church law provision that says bishops can lose their office for “culpable negligence” that harms the faithful.
— By inviting complaints against bishops – saying, in fact, that Catholics have a “duty” to report such failings – the Vatican has opened a new and important channel of communication for Catholic laity.
— The pope’s decision grew out of a proposal from the predominantly lay Commission for the Protection of Minors, established last year by Pope Francis. The commission (which some considered merely a public relations stratagem) has thus had tremendous impact on an issue that previously had been reserved to the pope and his top aides.
— The decision came quickly. Only four months ago, reporters learned that the Commission for the Protection of Minors was proposing ways to hold bishops to account. At that time, commission members said they were consulting with the Vatican’s canon law experts – a stage that can last years, or forever. It’s clear to me that the pope and his hand-picked Council of Nine cardinals pushed this through.
The announcement certainly gives Pope Francis more credibility on the sex abuse issue. Last year, in a meeting with abuse survivors, the pope told them that bishops would be held accountable. He has now put in place the machinery to make good on that promise.