Pope details steps to remove 'negligent' bishops

In response to a longstanding demand from sex abuse survivors as well as his own commission for the protection for minors, Pope Francis on June 4 introduced a statute that calls for bishops to be removed for failing to deal properly with abusive priests. Critics were quick to point out that the document, issued “motu propio” (on one’s own initiative), however, creates no new law and appears to bury the proposal for a special Vatican court to try such cases.

The statute, which will go into effect Sept. 5, says bishops can be removed from office if he has “through negligence, executed or omitted acts that caused serious harm to others,” be they physical, moral, spiritual or financial. In the decree, the pope states that bishops “must be particularly diligent in protecting those who are the weakest among the people entrusted to them.” For this reason, the pope writes, the Church pays “vigilant attention to the protection of children and vulnerable adults.”


The document, Come una madre amorevole, (“Like a Loving Mother”), requires the Vatican to launch an investigation if “serious evidence” of negligence is found. The appropriate congregation of the Roman Curia will decide, following an investigation, whether a bishop should be removed. The bishop will be given the opportunity to defend himself, but ultimately, the Vatican can issue a decree to remove him if he does not resign within 15 days, subject to a “special college of jurists” who will advise the pope. What form this college will take, and in which congregation it will sit, are yet to be clarified.

Canon law, as the statute acknowledges, already provides for the loss of any ecclesiastical office, including that of a diocesan bishop, for “grave causes” by means of “a decree issued legitimately by competent authority” (Canon 192-193). Francis says in the decree that he wants to be explicit that negligence in the exercise of a bishop’s office is an example of such a grave cause, especially when linked to cases of clerical sexual abuse, and that the Vatican congregations are the competent authorities in these cases.

In a statement, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi drew attention to two points in the document. First, he said a bishop can be guilty of lacking in diligence even in the absence of “grave moral culpability on his part.” Second, in cases pertaining to the abuse of minors and vulnerable adults, “it is sufficient for the lack of diligence be grave” for a bishop to be removed from office, whereas in other cases, a “very grave” lack of diligence is necessary for a bishop’s removal.

Previous plans

The statute makes no mention of the proposal, approved by Francis in June last year following a submission by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, that there should be a special tribunal within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to try bishops accused of “crimes of the abuse of office when connected to the abuse of minors.” The CDF is the Vatican body with the legal power to impose penalties in clerical sex abuse cases. Although plans to create the new tribunal were approved by the pope’s Council of Nine (C9) advisers, it immediately ran into a quicksand of legal and bureaucratic difficulties, leading to frustration and accusations that the Vatican was stonewalling. The fact that so few bishops have been stood down over abuse mishandling has made it hard for Rome to convince critics that it is serious about tackling cover-up and complicity.

In fact, a number of bishops — notably in Ireland and the United States (last year, Bishop Robert W. Finn in Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, and Archbishop John C. Nienstedt in St. Paul and Minneapolis) — have resigned over such cases, but only after behind-the-scenes pressure and arm-twisting from the Vatican, and for reasons that are officially unconnected with mishandling of abuse. Such resignations do little to “repair scandal and restore justice,” which is one of the objectives of the Church’s penal law.

A year on, Francis appears to have accepted that the tribunal just isn’t going to happen, and that the best way forward is to ask Vatican congregations to enforce the existing law.

Marie Collins, an Irish survivor of abuse who is a founding member of Francis’ Commission for the Protection of Minors, said that while it was “depressing” that the tribunal proposal had stalled, the new procedures showed that bishop accountability “has not been allowed to disappear into the sand.”

“As a survivor, I am hoping the congregations involved will implement these new procedures as speedily as possible, as the success or failure of any initiative can only be judged on visible results,” she said in an email to the Associated Press.

“If the dicasteries were hesitant or confused about their role, they no longer have that excuse,” said Boston Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, who as well as sitting on the C9 also presides over the commission for minors. Cardinal O’Malley added that the Vatican congregations would now be aware, as a result of the decree, that the eyes of the world were on them.

Statute’s effectiveness

Father Lombardi told reporters that the Vatican dicasteries charged with investigating negligent bishops were the Congregation for Bishops, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Congregation for Oriental Churches and the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. The four dicasteries appoint and oversee bishops in dioceses, mission territories, Eastern-rite Churches and religious orders.

The CDF will not be involved with the new law “because it is not a matter of crimes of abuse but of negligence of office,” Father Lombardi said.

A senior Vatican official with expertise in this area said the problem was not that new powers were needed, but that the existing ones were not being applied. “This document does not necessarily kill the idea of the tribunal, but it does seem to put it on the back burner for a while,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. “The important thing is that these provisions can be up and running right away.”

The expert said that in his view there was no problem in “applying these norms retroactively,” given that they emphasized law that has long existed and introduced no new definition of negligence.

The effectiveness of the new norms will depend greatly on the capacity and willingness of the congregations to respond swiftly and energetically to allegations.

Although it is safe to predict that future bishops’ abuse mishandling will receive a more decisive response from Rome, it is far from clear what will happen with past cases.

“It will be a quite interesting matter how far back the congregations are willing to go,” the Vatican expert added.

Austen Ivereigh is the author of “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope” (Henry Holt, $30).