Pope Francis authorises removal of Bishops negligent on sexual abuse

JUNE 17, 2017


Pope Francis authorises removal of Bishops negligent on sexual abuse


Francis gives Vatican authority to initiate removal of bishops negligent on sexual abuse


By Joshua J. McElwee, Rome, June 4, 2016

Pope Francis has signed a new universal law for the global Catholic Church specifying that a bishop’s negligence in response to clergy sexual abuse can lead to his removal from office. The law also empowers several Vatican dicasteries to investigate such bishops and initiate processes of removal, subject to final papal approval.

The move, made by the pontiff in a formal document known as a motu proprio on Saturday, appears to represent a significant moment in the worldwide church’s decades-long clergy sexual abuse crisis.

In case after case in the past, the Vatican and church officials would dig in to protect bishops even when there was substantial documented evidence of negligence on their behalf. Now, the pope has formally mandated that the church’s offices in Rome must prosecute bishops who fail in protecting children.

“Canon law already foresees the possibility of removal from the ecclesial office ‘for grave causes,'” Francis states in a short preamble to the new law, given the Italian name Come una madre amorevole (“Like a loving mother.”)

“With the following letter I intend to specify that among those ‘grave causes’ is included negligence of bishops in the exercise of their office, particularly relative to cases of sexual abuse against minors and vulnerable adults,” he continues.

Marie Collins, a member of Francis’ Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and an abuse survivor, told NCR she welcomes the new procedures and “hope they will succeed in bringing the accountability survivors have waited for so long.”

“The most important aspect of any new procedure is its implementation and that is what we must wait to see,” she said.

Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the head of the commission, called the motu proprio “clearly an important and positive step forward.”

“We are grateful that our Holy Father has received the recommendations from our Commission members and that they have contributed to this new and significant initiative,” he said.

The new measure, comprising five short articles, allows “the competent congregation of the Roman Curia” to begin investigations of local bishops, eparchs, or heads of religious communities when the congregation suspects a leader’s negligence has caused “physical, moral, spiritual or patrimonial” harm.

“The diocesan bishop or the eparch or whoever has the responsibility for a particular church, even if temporarily … can be legitimately removed from his position if he has by negligence, placed or omitted acts caused serious harm to others, whether their physical persons or the community as a whole,” states the first article.

“The diocesan bishop or eparch can be removed only if he has objectively been lacking in a very grave manner the diligence that is required of his pastoral office,” it continues, specifying: “In the case of abuse against minors or vulnerable adults it is sufficient that the lacking of diligence be grave.”

The law obliges the Vatican to notify the local bishop or leader of the investigation and to give him the possibility to produce relevant documents or testimony.

“To the bishop will be given the possibility to defend himself, according to the methods foreseen by the law,” it states. “All the steps of the inquiry will be communicated to him and he will always be given the possibility of meeting the superiors of the congregation.”

The law states that “if it becomes necessary to remove the bishop” the congregation involved in the matter can either proceed “to give, in the shortest time possible, the decree or removal” or “to exhort the bishop fraternally to present his resignation within 15 days.”

“If the bishop does give his response in that time, the congregation can release the decree of removal,” it states.

All decisions by Vatican congregations, the law states, “must be subjected to the specific approval of the Roman Pontiff.” The pope, it continues, will be assisted in making his decision “by a special association of legal experts of the designated need.”



The new law appears to modify a suggestion Francis was given last year by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors to create a new tribunal at the Vatican to judge bishops who respond inappropriately to sexual abuse claims.

Where a new tribunal would have likely required much time and effort to create, the law deputizes current Vatican offices to undertake that work.

The U.S.-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said in a statement they were “highly skeptical” of the pope’s new law. “A ‘process’ isn’t needed,” said the group. “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.”

Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s chief spokesman, said in a note Saturday that four Vatican congregations would be charged with investigating prelates: for Bishops, for the Evangelization of Peoples, for the Oriental Churches, and for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

The Vatican’s chief doctrinal office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, will not be involved with the new law “because it is not a matter of crimes of abuse but of negligence of office,” Lombardi said.

The spokesman also said that the “special association” that is to assist the pope in deciding on these matters will be a new group of advisers and “you can foresee that this association will be composed of cardinals and bishops.”

The new law is to take effect Sept. 5.


12 of 371 readers’ comments

1. This has more holes in it than a cabbage strainer. Actions will speak stronger than words.

Just a few of my very quick reactions at first glance of the report.

“A bishop’s negligence …..CAN lead to his removal from office” – note “can” not “will”.

“Several Vatican dicasteries” are empowered to investigate. Sounds good but who has the casting vote as to whether it will be put forward for pontifical consideration. Why not “one Tribunal” as recommended by the Commission on Abuse. A small group would standardise the procedures; the many dicasteries will dilute and weaken the potential possibilities.

“Canon Law already foresees the possibility of removal” … “for GRAVE causes”.
Why was it never considered a “GRAVE cause” up to now? Was it defined as being excluded? Yet bishops involved in same-sex (and opposite-sex) relationships with (consenting) adults were removed overnight, because IT was considered a “GRAVE cause”.

“Now the church’s office in Rome must prosecute (guilty) bishops.”
They should be handed over to civil authorities in their own jurisdiction to deal with.

What is a “competent congregation of the Roman Curia”? Their track record to date shows them to be grossly incompetent; concealing and their primary objective was to protect the institution and the abuser. The victim was discouraged and alienated.

What about those bishops identified by international Judicial Reviews; Commissions; and civil court reports, who have already been identified as negligent, causing “physical; moral; spiritual or patrimonial” harm?
In other words ACCOUNTABILITY for past negligence, over previous decades?

The new law comes into effect the 5th of September 2016. Is it retrospective or only relates to new situations listed from the 5th Sept.

I’m afraid my reaction is much like the S.N.A.P. statement of being “highly skeptical”. Actions will speak louder than words. I just wonder how many bishops will be even be considered, over the next twelve months. Time will tell.


2. Why would the pope and bishops want to “get it”? That would mean that they would have to have a conscience about protecting their clergy predators and re-victimizing the victims. The pope and bishops seem to have deadened their consciences, in my view, since they show little if any shame, and act as if the suicides of victims around the world and the soul-murder of others are of no consequence. The whole situation is appalling to me. It is hard to get one’s head around this deliberate lack of care by so-called men of God, who continue to say what we hope to hear from them, and then they do what they want. Where is their integrity? Maybe that is too much to ask of them, since they are a closed system of elite princes and allowed to be above the law. I do not see that they want change and they are not being forced to change by anyone other than by the brave victim/survivors, who have been uncovering some of the dark side of the papacy for over 25 years.


3. I believe that the core of the problem may be that loyalty to the pope is more important than loyalty to Jesus. Instead of the popes trusting in the words of Jesus that the truth will set us free, and instead of trusting that the Holy Spirit will help us in facing the truth for the greater glory of God, the popes have used human means of protecting the institution by secrecy and LIES. The bishops have been put in a difficult position by the popes and by the policies in the Vatican of secrecy and denial of the truth. Ending the “Pontifical Secret” and opening all files on clergy sexual abuse to the police, will force the pope and bishops to trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to protect the church, instead of depending on themselves alone, in my view.


4. I think they get it, they just don’t like where ‘getting it’ leads. Making bishops accountable to the flock has implications for the whole ecclesial house of cards. I’m quite sure there was all kinds of Vatican opposition to the idea of a sexual abuse tribunal. What Francis just gave us is much ado about nothing. The boys will still be accountable to the boys and we all know how well that has worked with regards to clerical sexual abuse. The boys protect the boys.



5. It may help to know that the four dicasteries (congregations) having jurisdiction over bishops exists because each of the four handle different types of infractions. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), for instance handles errors in doctrine and theology among bishops: but St. John Paul II added the responsibility for Church investigation and disposition of sexually abusing clerics to the CDF under then Cardinal Ratzinger (who did little with it). The Congregation for Bishops handles other aspects of prelate errors, and so on. I personally do not think that what exists is the best, most efficient, and most effective way of having bishops be held accountable, but the good news is that +Francis is adding some much needed specificity about sex abuse matters to the rules governing those four curial offices. SNAP is always “skeptical” about anything the Church does in being accountable, but that is what their role needs to be, however extreme it happens to get at times, as the external pressure has shown itself to be the major motivation for any bit of the sexual abuse crisis to be revealed and dealt with. I welcome this move by the pope as one more step in prevention. Too bad it wasn’t there 25 years ago.


6. This is actually very good that someone can now be fired for not doing his job.


7. True. Canon Law still requires bishops to maintain the Pontifical Secret and so not report clerical CSA to civil authorities in jurisdictions which do not have mandatory reporting laws. It is not clear at all from McElwee’s article that these Canonical provisions have been excised from Church Law.
I suspect that what the Vatican is doing is strengthening the legislation which requires bishops to scrupulously observe all aspects of Canon Law as it applies to internal ecclesiastical processes and civil compliance where demanded.
I doubt if the really troublesome Canons covering the Pontifical Secrecy in clerical CSA will ever be struck out of Church Law.
If there is genuine zeal for God’s House, the Pope and his Commission would be following the paper trail back to Benedict XVI/Ratzinger and put him on trial for his appalling treatment of the Irish Bishops and the way he went about preserving Canon Law provisions on the Pontifical Secret thus covering his own papal backside and that of the six popes before him.
The bishops, as you say, were only doing what they were instructed to do under Canon Law. The supreme legislator is the Pope.


8. Re: the “Pontifical Secret,” I continue to hope and pray that Pope Francis, on the advice of the commission for protection of minors, will strike that rule from the Church. It is a self-serving evil, a leftover from the days of kingdom (not God’s Kingdom) treachery and espionage between popes and emperors and kings when some secrecy was needed for survival, but had then morphed into enabling sexually abusing priests and offending and/or collaborating bishops. It is a stain on the Church before Christ our Lord, and has no place in the Church if it is serious in stopping the abuse of our vulnerable members. This must not stand, and the laity along with Christ-centered clerics and religious should raise their voices and clamor for the secret’s removal.


9. Looks like Bishops policing their fellow Bishops. Based on the history of Bishops here in the States, I’d guess that there’s a 0% chance of one Bishop bringing an action against a fellow Bishop. I don’t see this bring helpful to the Church. But it does sound nice. So there’s that.


10. The papacy has had these powers all along, and declined to use them because bishops consider themselves “privileged characters,” immune from discipline and judgment, especially from people who are not bishops! The episcopal mindset will not change, and that’s what needs to!


11. Nothing will happen. This is a PR move. Years from now people will be asking why no bishop has been disciplined and the papal lie machine will be cranking out a steady flow of “explanations”.


12. We have a problem here that runs in a circle feeding upon itself. The men who make the rules — bishops and cardinal bishops — construe themselves to be “Princes of the Church” who are at best subject to a jury of their peers, so to speak, assuming it ever gets even that far. Once obtained, the coveted ‘red hat’ almost guarantees immunity from accountability. Of course the princely peers are loathe to hold one of their princely cohorts to account because there are too many skeletons laying around in other prelate closets too… in some cases the jury pool itself would be tainted with predation enablers.

There actually has been investigative journalism tracking the extensive web of obfuscation and enabling running across multiple states… even directly amongst the bishops themselves. It is disturbing to read and see the evidence.

So far it seems that RC prelates believe they must hang together to avoid hanging separately. Of course, the journalists who researched and documented all of this are blown off by most of the hierarchy as “enemies of the Church”.

Bottom line: It is highly unlikely that any pew dwellers will be officially investigating or determining the fate of any bishop.



Pope scraps tribunal for bishops who covered up for pedophile priests


By Nicole Winfield, Vatican City, June 4, 2016



Pope Francis on Saturday scrapped his proposed tribunal to prosecute bishops who covered up for pedophile priests after it ran into opposition and instead clarified legal procedures to remove them if the Vatican finds they were negligent.

The new procedures sought to answer long-standing demands by survivors of abuse that the Vatican hold bishops accountable for botching abuse cases. Victims have long accused bishops of covering up for pedophiles, moving rapists from parish to parish rather than reporting them to police — and suffering no consequences.

But the new law was immediately criticized by survivors of abuse as essentially window dressing since there were already ways to investigate and dismiss bishops for wrongdoing — they were just rarely used against bishops who failed to protect their flocks from pedophiles.

Analysts suggested the new law was much ado about very little.

“There is nothing breaking here: The congregations could already do that,” said Kurt Martens, professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America. He said what is significant about the new law is that it makes no mention of the original proposal for the tribunal, which would have treated negligence as a crime and prosecuted it as such.

“Does that mean the tribunal isn’t going to come because there was too much opposition?” he asked.

The main U.S. victims’ group, SNAP, said it was “extraordinarily skeptical” that the new procedures would amount to any wave of dismissals since popes have always had the power to oust bishops but haven’t wielded it.

“A ‘process’ is helpful only if it’s used often enough to deter wrongdoing. We doubt this one will be,” SNAP’s David Clohessy said.

In the law, Francis acknowledged that the church’s canonical code already allowed for a bishop to be removed for “grave reasons.” But he said he wanted to precisely state that negligence in handling abuse cases counted as one of those reasons.

Bishops “must undertake a particular diligence in protecting those who are the weakest among their flock,” Francis wrote in the law, called a motu proprio.

The statute essentially does away with a proposal approved by Francis last year to establish an accountability tribunal inside the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to hear negligence cases. Francis’ sex abuse advisory board had recommended that the Congregation prosecute negligent bishops because it already oversees actual sex abuse cases against clergy.

But that proposal posed a host of legal and bureaucratic issues and ran into opposition from bishops and the Vatican bureaucracy. In the end, Francis backed off and instead essentially reminded the four Vatican offices that already handle bishop issues that they were also responsible for investigating and punishing negligence cases involving abuse.

Marie Collins, an abuse survivor who is a member of Francis’ abuse advisory board, said while it was “depressing” that the tribunal proposal had stalled for a year, the new procedures emphasizing negligence show 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.

In the law, Francis said a bishop can be removed if his actions or omissions cause “grave harm” — physical, moral, spiritual or financial — to individuals or communities. The bishop himself doesn’t need to be morally guilty. It’s enough if he is purely lacking in the diligence required of his office.

The procedures call for the Vatican to start an investigation when “serious evidence” is provided that a bishop was negligent. The bishop can defend himself. At the end of the investigation, the Vatican can prepare a decree removing the bishop or ask him to resign.

Any decision to remove the bishop must first be approved by the pope, who will be advised by legal experts, the law says.

Even before the new procedures were announced, two U.S. bishops who bungled abuse cases resigned on their own: Bishop Robert Finn in Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, and Archbishop John Nienstedt in St. Paul and Minneapolis.



‘Like a loving mother’: Negligence and abuse in the Catholic clergy


Catholic Online (
www.catholic.org), Vatican City, June 5, 2016

On Saturday, Pope Francis issued an edict on the protection of minors and vulnerable adults, in which he said that negligence on the part of a bishop can constitute removal from office.

Entitled “Like a loving mother,” the edict — officially called a motu proprio – contributes to existing norms in place with regard to abuse cases. It particularly pertains to bishops, eparchs, or religious superiors who are deemed guilty of negligence in such cases.

In a statement, Holy See press office director, Fr. Federico Lombardi, drew attention to two points in the motu proprio. The first is that a bishop can be guilty of lacking in diligence even in the absence of “grave moral culpability on his part.”

The second point is, 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. In other cases, a “very grave” lack of diligence is necessary for a bishop’s removal.

Canon law already makes provisions for the removal of bishops “for grave reasons,” as is noted in the motu proprio.

The document states that diocesan bishops and eparchs, whether permanent or temporary, can be subject to removal on account of negligence — either through “committed or omitted acts” — if such failure resulted in “physical, moral, spiritual, or patrimonial” harm to an individual or a community as a whole.



Investigations into the conduct of bishops will be carried out by four “competent Congregations,” Fr. Lombardi’s statement reads.

Fr. Lombardi said the congregations charged with investigations are: the Congregation for Bishops, the Congregation for The Evangelisation of Peoples, the Congregation for Oriental Churches, and the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

If, after investigations, this team of congregations determine it is necessary to remove the bishop, they will decide whether to remove him immediately, or give him fifteen days to resign. If the bishop does not resign in the allotted period, the congregations can decree his removal from office.

The decision made by the congregation must be submitted for approval by the Pope, “who will be assisted by a special college of lawyers, duly assigned.”

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will not be involved in these cases because they pertain to negligence, not abuse, Fr. Lombardi said in the statement.

“Like a loving mother,” Pope Francis writes, in reference to the title of the motu proprio, “the Church loves all her children, but cares for and protects the smallest and most defenseless with a very particular affection: it is a task which Christ himself entrusted to the entire Christian community as a whole.”

For this reason, the Pope writes, the Church pays “vigilant attention to the protection of children and vulnerable adults.”

While it is the responsibility of the entire Church to protect minors and vulnerable adults, bishops, eparchs, and those with responsibilities in a particular Church, must be extra diligent, Francis writes.

“With the present letter, I intend to clarify that, among the said ‘grave reasons,’ is included negligence of bishops in exercising their office, in particular as regards cases of sexual abuse committed against minors and vulnerable adults, envisaged by the [motu proprio] Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela, promulgated by St. John Paul II, and amended by my beloved predecessor, Benedict XVI.




















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