ROME — In Pope Francis’ latest effort to show resolve about cleaning up the sexual abuse scandals in Catholicism, the Vatican is creating a college of experts to speed up the procedure for expelling abusers from the priesthood.
Since 2001, the process to remove an alleged abuser has been supervised by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with most cases taking four or five months to process once they arrive in Rome.
The seven-member college created by Francis on Tuesday, to be composed of cardinals and bishops, is designed to cut that lag time significantly. The college also will handle other grave offenses under Church law, including violations of the secrecy of the confessional and impersonating a priest.
Members of the team haven’t been appointed yet, but a document released Tuesday and signed by the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, says they will be chosen by Pope Francis in the near future.
The pontiff created the new body in the form of a rescript dated Nov. 11, meaning that it goes into effect immediately.
Vatican officials say the new system concerns the Church’s internal disciplinary procedures, and is not intended to substitute for reporting alleged crimes by clergy to police or investigators for prosecution under civil law.
At the moment, a member of the clergy accused of a crime can face three types of internal disciplinary procedures: a judicial trial using Church courts, an administrative process under a bishop’s authority, or a direct ruling by the pope.
A trial involves a tribunal composed of three judges, while an administrative process means that a local bishop along with two advisors, called “assessors,” collects pertinent information from church lawyers representing both the defense and the prosecution and then makes a ruling.
As in civil courts, the accused or the prosecutor can appeal these decisions. Up this point, the final appeal has gone to the Feria IV, a monthly meeting of members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which was assigned responsibility for abuse cases in 2001 by Pope John Paul II.
A canon law expert who worked on drafting the document creating the new college told Crux that the Feria IV has faced a serious backlog in trying to move these cases through the system, in part because of the volume of information each generates – including an overall summary, the defense of the priest, and the prosecution’s brief.
“The Feria IV, which deals primarily with doctrinal issues, was trying to do three or four cases a month,” the expert said. “This implied a great effort for the members … [and] cases were taking too long.”
According to the expert, Pope Francis decided to create this college within the Feria IV so that the most prepared church lawyers from the CDF and around the world can rule on the cases on a more regular basis.
The fact that the college will include members of the Congregation means it won’t be fully independent, but will have the power to rule on behalf of the Feria IV and will have to report periodically on the decisions made.
“It’ll be the same process but with more people dedicated to it,” he said. “The result will be faster and better results, without altering the processes.”
“It was abundantly clear during the monthly meetings that a new way of doing this was needed,” he said. “The Holy Father listened and came up with a solution.”
Creation of a college was firstly hinted in May, when Pope Francis removed the Argentinian Archbishop José Luis Mollaghan, from his diocese, Rosario, to appoint him to this commission.
The Vatican spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi wasn’t able to confirm or deny that Mollaghan will be a part of the new body. He currently resides in Buenos Aires, and recently announced that his intention was to remain there.