Tony Gentile/Reuters
Pope Francis is greeted as he leaves at the end of the Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican on Wednesday.

Pope Francis puts pressure on bishops to prevent child abuse

A new Catholic tribunal would judge bishops, who oversee the priests at the heart of the child sexual abuse scandal.

The Catholic Church has taken strides to punish priests who have abused children, and is now widening its focus to include the bishops who supervise priests. Bishops have long been criticized for neglecting to prevent or report cases of abuse, and on Wednesday Pope Francis approved a tribunal to hold them accountable.

Under the new plan, complaints can be filed against bishops who respond inappropriately to cases of abuse. Next, one of three Vatican departments would investigate the complaint. The bishop would then be brought before the tribunal, run by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, for judgment.

The Vatican has not yet released information on the protocol for filing complaints.

The plan came to the pope from the Pontifical Commission on the Protection of Minors, a group that includes two victims of sexual abuse by clergy members: Peter Saunders and Marie Collins. Both Mr. Saunders and Ms. Collins praised the pope for approving the plan.

Collins wrote via Twitter, “Very pleased the Pope has approved the Commission’s proposal on accountability,” and Saunders told Catholic news site Crux, “this is a positive step that clearly indicates that Pope Francis is listening to his commission.”

The proposal details five points for the establishment of the new system. Anne Barrett Doyle of, an organization that digitally archives public documents on the subject, told Reuters in an email that the plan is "potentially quite significant" because it develops "a clear road map for disciplining bishops who conceal or enable child sexual abuse."

However, while the plan may present a novel approach, some victims’ advocates are saying it does not go far enough. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said in a statement that the pope “could have sacked dozens of complicit bishops. He has, however, sacked no one.” SNAP director David Clohessy condemned the plan for failing to provide concrete punishments.

"Accountability necessarily involves consequences for wrongdoers. Whether a new, untested, Vatican-ruled process will mean consequences for wrongdoers remains to be seen," Clohessy told USA Today.

"This move will give hope to some," Clohessy said. "But hope doesn't safeguard kids. Punishing men who endanger kids safeguards kids. That should have happened decades ago.… That's not happening now. And that must happen – strongly and soon – if the church is to be safer."

In the past, bishops who have mishandled cases of sexual abuse have at times been called to resign for “ill health or other grave cause.” The Wall Street Journal reported that Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City, Mo., resigned in April after being convicted in 2012 of failing to report a priest for child abuse.

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