Pope Francis issued a papal law on Saturday, called a motu proprio, stating that Roman Catholic bishops who are negligent in their handling of sexual abuse cases will be removed from their positions.
The Catholic church has long faced criticism for its mishandling and cover up of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. Even the highly progressive Pope Francis has been criticized by those who say the Church has only made lip service toward progress.
With the issuance of this rule, the church appears to be taking real steps towards change.
Bishops “must undertake a particular diligence in protecting those who are the weakest among their flock,” Pope Francis wrote in the motu proprio.
Over the last decade and a half, thousands of victims of sexual abuse worldwide have come forward and shared tales of the Church’s response to their allegations. Too many times, victims say, priests accused of sexual abuse were shuffled around between parishes rather than prosecuted or defrocked.
In 2001 and 2010, Pope Francis’ predecessors Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict issued and amended their own motu proprios, imposing church secrecy in matters of abuse.
Recently, Pope Francis has taken a different stance, saying that the church should be more open and confront crimes against minors.
"The crimes and sins of sexual abuse of minors cannot be kept secret any longer,” said Pope Francis during an address last year in Philadelphia. “I commit myself to the zealous watchfulness of the church to protect minors, and I promise that all those responsible will be held accountable."
Yet despite this promise, critics charge that the Pope and the Church have done little to practically confront the problem of abuse.
In 2010, for example, Pope Benedict revised Vatican procedures for sexual abuse cases, including doubling the statute of limitations for prosecuting abusers, and broadening the Vatican’s legal authority to follow through with discipline. Critics say that these changes made little difference.
More recently, in Philadelphia, Pope Francis spoke before a gathering of bishops and praised bishops engaged in court battle for their courage in the fight to bring healing to victims, though he did not speak to the struggle that victims face.
Saturday's announcement, therefore, could mark the beginning of a new era of Church responsiveness towards sexual abuse cases.
Under the new law, bishops who are negligent in their handling of abuse cases can lose their positions. If “serious evidence” shows that bishops have neglected their duty – any of their pastoral duties, including following through on abuse cases – then the Vatican will investigate those bishops.
If a bishop is found guilty of negligence, then he can either resign or the Vatican will remove him from duty within fifteen days.
Bishops have always been eligible for removal for “grave offenses,” though until now, papal law has not designated failure to follow through on sexual abuse allegations a grave offense.
Some remain skeptical.
"A 'process' isn’t needed," said the Survivor’s Network for those Abused by Priests, according to the National Catholic Reporter. "Discipline is what’s needed. A 'process' doesn’t protect kids. Action protects kids. A 'process' is helpful only if it’s used often enough to deter wrongdoing. We doubt this one will be."
The Pope must still approve all removals.