Pope Francis has copperfastened the concept of "Bishop Accountability" in relation to the handling of sex abuse cases within the Catholic Church on Saturday.
In a new papal decree or “motu proprio”, the Pope has established new norms for the removal of bishops who “through negligence, committed or omitted acts” have caused harm either to individuals or to the community:
“With this present Apostolic Letter, I want to specify that among those grave causes (that lead to removal from office) is included negligence by Bishops in their duties, particularly relative to the handling of cases of sexual abuse committed on minors or vulnerable adults.”
Essentially, the Pope appeared to have responded to one of the longest running complaints of the sex abuse survivors’ lobby.
Namely, that while the Church often sanctions abuser priests by “reduction to the lay status”, it never takes meaningful action against those many bishops who mishandled an abuser priest, either by moving him from parish to parish or by covering up his criminal acts.
In a note on Saturday, senior Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi significantly pointed out that even if a bishop may be found to be lacking in "diligence" in his office (in relation to sex abuse cases), this does not necessarily imply "grave moral culpability" on his part.
The new Apostolic Letter points out that cases of negligence would be examined by one of four Vatican Congregations (Ministries), namely the Congregation Of Bishops, the Congregation For The Evangelisation of The Peoples, The Congregation For Oriental Churches and the Congregation For the Institutes of Consecrated Life.
Significantly, the Holy See’s doctrinal watchdog, the Congregation For The Doctrine Of The Faith, will not be involved since its remit involves the handling of cases of priestly abuse rather than Episcopal negligence.
Irish survivor Marie Collins, who serves on that Vatican body, welcomed the Pope's Motu Proprio.
Ms Collins said anything that moved issues around bishop accountability was good.
“But at the end of the day it all depends upon implementation. This is very welcome but it is now down to seeing what actions, if any, are taken on the basis of the new procedures,” she said.
“We survivors have to wait and see what comes down the line, we’ve seen so many promises and so many policies that, at this point, it is good to see new procedures and new emphasis on negligence involving cases of child abuse and abuse of vulnerable adults..
“However, until we see some action as a result of this (new norms), it is a question of waiting and seeing and hoping.”
The new norms, which are due to take effect from September of this year, inevitably conclude by pointing out that the last word will rest with the Pope .
The congregations might call for the removal or resignation of a particular bishop but that request depended on papal approval, which might come after the Pope has consulted with “a dedicated special college of legal experts”.
The Pope's Apostolic Letter received a less than enthusiastic response from the US sex abuse survivor lobby, SNAP.
The organisation said: “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. We’re extraordinarily sceptical.
“A ‘process’ isn’t needed. Discipline is what’s needed. A ‘process’ doesn’t protect kids. Action protects kids.”