VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis on Saturday scrapped his proposed tribunal to prosecute bishops who failed to protect their flocks from pedophile priests and instead established new legal procedures to remove them if the Vatican finds they were negligent.
With the new law, Francis sought to answer long-running demands by survivors of abuse and their advocates to hold bishops accountable when they botched handling abuse cases. Victims have long accused bishops of covering up for abuse, moving rapists from parish to parish rather than reporting them to police.
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 is already responsible for overseeing actual sex abuse cases against clergy.
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.
As a result, the new procedures don't amount to any revolution in bishop accountability since those four offices already had the authority and duty to sanction bishops for wrongdoing. The law, though, specifically states that negligence in handling abuse cases is cause for dismissal.
Victims groups expressed doubt that the new procedures would result in any wave of firing bishops.
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.
In the law, Francis said a bishop can be removed if his actions or omissions cause "grave harm," either 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. When the cases concern abuse, it's enough that the negligence is "serious," the law says.
The procedures call for the Vatican to start an investigation when "serious evidence" is provided that a bishop was negligent. The bishop will be informed and allowed to defend himself. At the end of the investigation, the Vatican can prepare a decree removing the bishop or ask him to resign within 15 days.
If he doesn't, the Vatican can go ahead with issuing a resignation decree.
Any decision to remove the bishop must first be approved by the pope, who will be assisted by a group of legal advisers, the law says.
The four offices that are now tasked with handling negligence investigations are the congregations that oversee diocesan bishops, bishops in mission territories, bishops who belong to Eastern rite churches and bishops who are members of religious orders.
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, Missouri, and Archbishop John Nienstedt in St. Paul and Minneapolis. They were presumably pressured by the Vatican to step down after civil authorities got involved.
Canon lawyers, though, have said such arm-twisting resignations do little to "repair scandal and restore justice," which the Church's penal law system is supposed to accomplish.