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Pope Issues New Decree to Deal With Pedophile Priests — But Victims Are Skeptical

Under new church laws announced by Pope Francis, bishops who cover up for pedophile priests will be investigated and could face removal from office.
Photo by Angelo Carconi/EPA

Under the new church laws announced by Pope Francis on Saturday, Catholic bishops who cover up for pedophile priests will be investigated and could face removal from office.

The papal decree is the result of a long fight to end the child sex abuse scandal that has rattled the Roman Catholic Church, and an effort to fix systemic failures within the church hierarchy that have led to abusers not being held responsible.


Sexual abuse victims have long contended that bishops will often relocate abusive priests to other parishes, rather than reporting them to the police or church authorities.

From 2001 to 2010, the Holy See received sex abuse allegations concerning about 3,000 priests dating back 50 years.

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Saturday's papal decree supposedly enacts what Francis approved last year: the creation of a Vatican tribunal for judging bishops who are accused of covering up or failing to act in child abuse cases by priests.

But some analysts see the new law as falling short of his original promises.

Kurt Martens, professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America, told the Associated Press that what was significant about the new law is that it doesn't mention that original proposal for the tribunal, which would have criminalized and prosecuted negligence.

"There's nothing breaking here," Martens said.

Until now, bishops, who are known as "princes of the church," could only be disciplined directly by the pope. The new law makes Francis the first pope to publicly confront the long-standing problem of alleged gross negligence. According to the New York Times, Francis' predecessors Pope Benedict XVI and John Paul II "defrocked" about 850 priests for sexual abuse and penalized another 2,500, but "there was no similar judicial mechanism for bishops."


Some victims and activists contend that Francis' proposals are toothless and won't actually solve the problem. By simply creating another layer of accountability, the problem of negligent bishops is kept in-house, critics say, arguing that if Francis wants to make a real difference, he should mandate referral to police investigation.

David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said in a statement that he was "extraordinarily skeptical."

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"Instead of just sacking bad bishops, or turning over abuse records to law enforcement, the Vatican is setting up yet another untested, internal church 'process' to purportedly deal with bishops who ignore or conceal child sex crimes," Clohessy said.

"A 'process' isn't needed," he went on. "Discipline is what's needed. A 'process' doesn't protect kids. Action protects kids."

In the past, the Vatican has defended itself by insisting that pedophilia is a problem that affects society as a whole, and is not endemic to the Roman Catholic Church.

But Pope Francis has taken a different approach. During a visit to the United States in 2014, he met victims who said they were abused by Catholic priests and promised that those responsible would be punished. In a sermon at a private mass for those victims, John Berry, author of Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church, told PBS that the pope's language struck him as "quite a reflection of guilt on his part on behalf of the hierarchy of the church. He begged for forgiveness rather like a sinner going to confession."


The language he used during the sermon, Berry said, established a base for discussing "something that's as aching and reaching as this scandal." But creating "the structural changes to meet the promise of the rhetoric" would be the pontiff's next challenge.

In 2014, Francis set up a Vatican commission to explore the best practices to root out abuse in parishes, and pledged zero tolerance for anyone in the church who abuses children, comparing pedophilia to a "satanic mass."

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Under previous church law, a bishop can lose his job for any "grave reasons." The new law, Francis says, specifically includes failure to report or handle sex abuse allegations as one of those "grave reasons."

Bishops must be "particularly diligent in protecting those who are the weakest among the people entrusted to them," Francis said.

The new law also requires the Vatican to launch an investigation if "serious evidence" of negligence is found. In such circumstances, the bishop would be given the opportunity to defend himself. If the Vatican finds negligence allegations are true, it can order his removal or demand his resignation within 15 days. Francis has the final word on any removal order.

Saturday's announcement comes at a strange time for the Vatican. Just last month, Francis voiced his support for a French cardinal, Philippe Barbarin, who has been repeatedly accused of covering up cases involving allegedly pedophilic priests. Francis told French Catholic daily La Croix that ordering Barbarin to resign would be "a mistake, an imprudence."

The pope said that Barbarin was "a brave and creative man, a missionary," and that forcing him to resign now would be premature. "We must now wait for the result of the proceedings before the civil courts," Francis said.

Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen