ROME—Never one to slow down on the weekend, Pope Francis on Saturday signed two documents designed to reflect progress on two battle fronts: The Catholic Church’s response to clerical sexual abuse, particularly bishops’ accountability, and reform of the Roman Curia, the global Church’s governing body.
The first document is a motu proprio, meaning a legal text, titled “As a loving mother,” which talks specifically about the causes that could merit removing a bishop or an eparch from his post.
In the document, Francis acknowledged that the church’s canon law already contemplates removing a bishop for “grave reasons,” but said he wanted to be more specific on the fact that negligence can cost a bishop his job.
One of the specifications added by the document is the fact that negligence of the bishop “in particular in relation to cases of sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults” is now one of the “grave reasons” that would legitimize the removal of a bishop from his position.
For decades, survivors of clerical sexual abuse and their advocates have been demanding that the Church hold bishops accountable for failing to act in cases of child sexual abuse, either by ignoring accusations or for moving sexually abusive priests from one parish to another instead of reporting them.
The law also says that a bishop can be removed if his actions or omissions cause “grave harm,” either physical, moral, spiritual or financial, to individuals or communities.
“As a loving mother the Church loves all her children, but treats and protects with a very particular affection the smallest and helpless” says the text released on Saturday by the Vatican, available only in Italian.
“Aware of this, the Church is particularly vigilant in protecting children and vulnerable adults. Such role of protection and care involves the whole Church, but particularly its shepherds,” the text continues, naming the bishops and eparchs.
A motu proprio is an edict by the pope that can either be addressed to a part of the Church, for instance the bishops, or to the institution as a whole. “As a loving mother” has no addressee, so it’s assumed that it’s meant for the global Church.
As any law, the document then goes to list the procedure for removing a bishop from his post, saying that he can only be removed if he has “objectively failed in a very serious manner to the diligence that is required by his pastoral office, even if not by a serious moral fault of his own.”
In the cases of child abuse or vulnerable adults, “the lack of action” has to be “serious” to merit removal.
According to the document, the new set of rules applies also for leaders of religious orders, not only bishops.
The second article of the motu proprio says that the corresponding Vatican office can start the investigation when there’s sufficient proof of negligence or wrong doing, giving the suspected bishop the possibility to defend himself.
Since these are cases of negligence but not crimes, the corresponding offices are the Congregations for Bishops (for most Latin rite prelates), Evangelization of Peoples (for bishops in mission territories), Oriental Churches (for the Eastern churches in communion with Rome) and Consecrated Life (for religious orders).
If found guilty, the bishop will have 15 days to voluntarily hand in his resignation, before being forcefully removed, and it’d be possible to temporarily replace a him while the investigation is ongoing.
Lastly, the document also says that each decision to remove a bishop from his post will have to be personally approved by the pope, who will be assisted by a group of legal advisers.
According to “As a loving mother,” the new regulations will become effective on Sept. 5, 2016. A Vatican spokesman on Saturday said there’s no question of a “retroactive” norm, since older cases were covered by the previous law, whereas from now on the process will follow what Francis has set out.
The motu proprio follows a 2015 institution of a tribunal within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith specifically to judge bishops “with regard to crimes of the abuse of office when connected to the abuse of minors.”
However, that tribunal is currently at a standstill, with no personnel having been appointed to it yet.
The second document signed by Francis on Saturday and also released only in Italian, are the statutes for a new “mega-dicastery” in the Vatican, a direct result of the work being done by the pope’s group of 9 cardinal advisors who guide the pontiff in the reform of the Roman Curia.
In a nutshell, two current Vatican offices, the Pontifical Council for the Laity and the Pontifical Council for the Family will become one: a Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life.
The new body should begin its work on Sept. 1, and it´s still unknown who will head it. Currently, the Council for the Laity is headed by Polish Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko, while family is under Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia.
Although early in the reform Francis had voiced the possibility of a married couple heading this new dicastery, the document released on Saturday says it´ll be headed by a prefect, always a cardinal or an archbishop “unless specified” by “some special law.” It will also have a secretary, “who could be a lay person,” and three sub-secretaries, one for laity, one for family and one for life, that “will have to be laity.”
Francis’ reform of the curia will conclude with a revised, or completely new, version of Pastor Bonus, currently the curia´s internal constitution, issued by Pope John Paul II and which the Argentine pontiff decided to revise.