Pope Francis has taken the biggest step yet to crack down on bishops who cover up for priests who rape and molest children, creating a new tribunal inside the Vatican to hear cases of bishops accused of failing to protect their flock. The initiative has significant legal and theological implications, since bishops have long been considered masters of their dioceses and largely unaccountable when they bungle their job, with the Vatican stepping in only in cases of gross negligence. That reluctance to intervene has prompted years of criticism that the Vatican failed to punish or forcibly remove bishops who moved predator priests from parish to parish, where they could rape again, rather than report them to police or remove them from ministry.
Francis has approved proposals made by his sexual abuse advisory board and will create a new judicial section "to judge bishops with regard to crimes of the abuse of office when connected to the abuse of minors," a Vatican statement said. Details must still be worked out, including possible punishments and the statute of limitations to determine whether old cases of negligence by bishops dating back 20 or 30 years can now be heard. Canon law already provides sanctions for bishops who are negligent in their duties, but the Vatican is not known to have ever meted out punishment for a bishop who covered up for an abuser. (Earlier this year, Francis accepted the resignation of an American bishop who admitted failing to report suspected abuse.)