Pope Francis among the people at St. Peter's Square - 12 May 2013Since his ascension to the Vatican throne, there’s been an expectation, or perhaps just a hope, that Pope Francis would finally adopt a new tactic in the handling of the Catholic Church’s worldwide clerical child-abuse scandal. As something of a reform advocate, Church watchers assumed he’d do things differently. And he has, in fact, marched to his own drum in many regards, as I’ve blogged quite often, but where “priestly pedophilia” has been concerned, he’s mostly been a big disappointment.

Yeah, he’s said and done a few things that suggest he “gets it,” but in the end, nothing has really changed, on that score. The best example of this is his special review commission, which apparently imploded because at least one of its members (foolishly, it seems) expected some actual results from it. “Priestly pedophilia” has turned out to be an ongoing problem which Francis ultimately hasn’t done anything about.

But that may have changed. I emphasize the “may have” in that sentence. The Associated Press reports the Pope has changed canon law so that bishops who failed to protect children might be disciplined (locally-cached version):

Pope Francis has established legal procedures to remove bishops who botch handling sex abuse cases, saying they can be kicked out of office if the Vatican finds they were negligent in doing their jobs.

In a law published Saturday, Francis answered a long-running demand by victims of abuse and their advocates to hold bishops accountable for failing to protect their flocks from pedophiles. Victims have long accused bishops of covering up for abuse, moving rapists from parish to parish rather than reporting them to police.

In the law, Francis acknowledged that the church’s canonical code already allows for a bishop to be removed for “grave reasons.” But he said he wanted to precisely state that negligence, especially negligence in handling abuse cases, can cost a bishop his job.

Yes, it’s true there really hasn’t been anything to date preventing a Pope from demanding the resignation of a negligent bishop — for pretty much any reason at all. It could always have been done, had it been desired. The Pope has a great deal of authority, both within and outside of canon law. But having this provision explicitly within canon law is a noteworthy change.

Even so — as with the review commission that collapsed — that doesn’t mean anything will ever come of this. The Vatican will, in all likelihood, continue doing as it wishes. We’ll just have to see if this new canon law actually goes anywhere … and given the Catholic bureaucracy’s glacial pace, it might take years for it to be noticed.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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