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By ELISABETTA POVOLEDO JUNE 4, 2016
Pope Francis leading a Mass for priests at the Vatican on Friday. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
ROME — A year after approving the creation of a new tribunal to discipline bishops who covered up child sex abuse by priests, Pope Francis scrapped that plan on Saturday and issued new guidelines to oust those who have been “negligent” in handling such cases.
Under the new guidelines, issued in an apostolic letter, Roman Catholic bishops who have failed to properly handle sex abuse cases will be investigated by four Vatican offices. If the bishops are found to have betrayed their mission, they will be removed “to protect those who are the weakest among the persons entrusted to them.”
Canon law already provides for the removal of bishops “for serious causes,” the pope acknowledged, but he said his letter was meant to “clarify that the serious causes include the negligence of bishops in the exercise of their office,” in particular in the case of sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults.
The decree sought to appease the growing frustrations of victims of abuse and their advocates who say that despite Francis’ promises of zero tolerance toward abuse and past pledges to hold bishops accountable, not enough has been done.
For some, the decree — issued on the pope’s own initiative — was a strong signal that Francis was paying attention.
“This is a major step to ensure that no bishop can fail in his duty to protect children and vulnerable adults, and if he does fail he can be removed,” said Gerard O’Connell, a Vatican expert who writes for America: The National Catholic Review. “I think it goes a long way to respond to what was still seen as a big loophole in the system. It closes that loophole.”
The decree states that a “diocesan bishop, or eparch” or the superior of a religious congregation can be “legitimately removed from his office” in cases where he has, “through negligence, committed or omitted acts that have caused grave harm to others, either with regard to physical persons, or with regard to the community itself.”
In the case of minors or vulnerable adults, “it is sufficient that the lack of diligence be ‘grave,’” Francis wrote in the decree.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the director of the Holy See Press Office, wrote in an explanatory note on Saturday that the measure “effectively lowers the standard necessary for a bishop to be removed from office when there is negligence with regard to cases of sexual abuse.”
With the new guidelines, Francis put into action what he promised last year when he approved a Vatican tribunal to judge bishops accused of covering up or failing to prevent the abuse of minors. That tribunal never materialized, amid a series of juridical and bureaucratic problems.
The tribunal “was complex from a legal point of view, so after further studies and in-depth analysis, this solution emerged, which is linear, clear and follows already established practices,” Father Lombardi said in an interview.
The accused bishops will have the right to defend themselves, and the final word will be that of the pope, the decree states. He will be advised by a panel of legal experts, most likely made up of cardinals and bishops, Father Lombardi said in the note.
The decree will go into effect on Sept. 5.
Some victims of child sex abuse and their advocates remained skeptical.
“Over the decades, we’ve seen so many policies and procedures and protocol that sound good on paper but are rarely followed,” said David Clohessy of St. Louis, the director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
In the case of the abuse of minors, “no new process should be required,” Mr. Clohessy said.
“The pope and his predecessors should have removed dozens of bishops long ago with the powers they already have,” he added. “It’s not a lack of policy but courage and will that prevents popes from acting.”