Pope Francis has taken the unprecedented step of setting up a Vatican-based tribunal to judge bishops accused of covering up child abuse by paedophile priests.
The initiative follows a recommendation from the Pope’s newly created panel on clerical sex abuse.
Bishops may also be punished for failing to prevent sexual abuse of minors according to Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi:
“The thing that is new is that a specific procedure is now indicated for these questions that may have to do with a bishop’s abuse of office.This certainly was not in place before, an ordinary and clear path, this is the real new aspect.”
To be more specific, the new department will come under the auspices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal arm, “ to judge bishops with regard to crimes of the abuse when connected to the abuse of minors”.
Complaints against the bishops will be initially investigated by one of three Vatican departments , depending on under whose jurisdiction the bishops fall, before being judged by the doctrinal department.
It’s the latest example of the Pope’s determination to root out sexual abuse in the Church after critics said bishops were out of reach of justice.
Survivors groups have long called for the Vatican to do more to make bishops accountable for abuse on their watch even if they didn’t commit any crime themselves.
The worldwide scandal, which first became prominent in Boston in 2002, has seen known abusers shunted from parish to parish instead of being defrocked and handed over to the authorities.
There have been scandals in Germany, the United States, Belgium, Italy and Ireland with hundreds of counts of sexual abuse coming to light.
A 2009 report in Ireland found that sexual and psychological abuse was “endemic” in Catholic-run industrial schools and orphanages for most of the 20th Century.
Last year the United Nations strongly criticised the Church for failing to stamp out abuse and for allowing cover-ups.