The Vatican is establishing a way to remove bishops for showing "negligence" in handling child abuse, according to a new decree by Pope Francis. Abuse victims have long accused bishops of covering up pedophilia cases.
The pope urged bishops to pay special care to protecting the "weakest among their flock" in a decree published on Saturday.
In the letter, Pope Francis announced new procedures to fire high-ranking priests "for serious reasons."
"I intend to specify that among these so-called 'serious reasons' is the negligence of bishops in the exercise of their functions, especially in cases of sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable adults," Francis wrote in a letter titled "motu proprio" ("on his own impulse" in Latin).
Under the new regulation, the Vatican would start investigating a bishop if there is "serious evidence" that the bishop was negligent in handling abuse. The Church would also inform the cleric and allow him to defend himself. Once the probe is complete, the Vatican can remove the bishop or ask him to resign within 15 days.
Any decision to fire a bishop must be approved by the pope, who would be assisted by a team of legal advisors.
Moving abusers around
Child abuse scandals have been hitting the Catholic Church for decades, with many bishops coming under fire for allegedly protecting guilty priests. Representatives of abuse victims have accused the Church of preferring to move the priests from one parish to another instead of punishing them and reporting the crimes.
After taking over the Holy See, Pope Francis vowed zero tolerance on abuse and a crackdown on cover-ups. Last year, he proposed a special tribunal to hear negligence cases. However, the tribunal proposal faced a host of legal and bureaucratic obstacles, prompting Francis to instead streamline the procedure and expand on pre-existing regulations with the Saturday decree.
Victims criticize new rules
Commenting on the decree, victims' groups said they were "extraordinarily skeptical" that the procedure would lead to a wave of bishops losing their jobs.
"Instead of just sacking bad bishops, or turning over abuse records to law enforcement, the Vatican is setting up yet another untested, internal church 'process' to purportedly deal with bishops who ignore or conceal child sex crimes," said David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
"A 'process' is helpful only if it's used often enough to deter wrongdoing. We doubt this one will be," he added.