In a response to critics who charge that the Roman Catholic Church is dragging its feet on stopping child abuse, Pope Francis has created a tribunal at the Vatican to judge bishops accused of covering up for abusive priests.
Following a wave of scandals, from the United States to Australia, the church has begun to crack down on priests who sexually abuse children. However, activists say bishops who protect the priests continue to escape punishment.
Some bishops have been accused of simply moving priests to a new parish after they reportedly abuse children, only to see them commit the same offense again.
In a statement released Wednesday, the Vatican said a tribunal within its Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would “judge bishops with regard to crimes of the abuse of office when connected to the abuse of minors.”
“The Congregation has never judged bishops for abuse of office; that needed authorization from the pope,” said Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi. “Now we have a regular procedure.”
The new tribunal was greeted with skepticism by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, an anti-abuse group.
"The pope has virtually limitless power," the group said in a statement. "By now, he could have sacked dozens of complicit bishops. He has, however, sacked no one."
The group added that in the face of “widespread denial, timidity and inaction” in the Catholic Church, "let’s be prudent, stay vigilant and withhold judgment until we see if and how this panel might act."
The move is in response to suggestions made by a panel of experts, including past victims, that Francis appointed to advise him on how to safeguard against abuse.
American Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who heads the abuse commission, presented the proposal Monday to the group of nine cardinals advising Francis on reforming the Vatican’s sclerotic bureaucracy. The group approved the measure, as did Francis, who also provided funding to staff the tribunal.
The Vatican abuse commission has begun to make its voice heard since it was created last year.
In April, a British member who was once abused by priests threatened to resign unless Francis dropped a bishop accused of covering up abuse. Peter Saunders protested over the Vatican’s appointment in January of Chilean Bishop Juan Barros, who is accused of witnessing abuse by another priest.
This month, Saunders alleged in a TV program that Cardinal George Pell had covered up abuse in Australia, prompting a demand from Pell’s lawyer to withdraw the allegation.
Pell, who was brought to Rome by Francis to clean up the Vatican’s murky finances, is among the group of senior cardinals who approved the new tribunal.
Kington is a special correspondent.