VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Saturday scrapped his proposed tribunal to prosecute bishops who covered up for pedophile priests after it ran into opposition and instead clarified legal procedures to remove them if the Vatican finds they were negligent.
The new procedures sought to answer long-standing demands by survivors of abuse that the Vatican hold bishops accountable for botching abuse cases. Victims have long accused bishops of covering up for pedophiles, moving rapists from parish to parish rather than reporting them to police — and suffering no consequences.
But the new law was immediately criticized by survivors of abuse as essentially window dressing since there were already ways to investigate and dismiss bishops for wrongdoing — they were just rarely used against bishops who failed to protect their flocks from pedophiles.
Analysts suggested the new law was much ado about very little.
"There is nothing breaking here: The congregations could already do that," said Kurt Martens, professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America.
He said what is significant about the new law is that it makes no mention of the original proposal for the tribunal, which would have treated negligence as a crime and prosecuted it as such.
"Does that mean the tribunal isn't going to come because there was too much opposition?" he asked.
The main U.S. victims' group, SNAP, said it was "extraordinarily skeptical" that the new procedures would amount to any wave of dismissals since popes have always had the power to oust bishops but haven't wielded it.
"A 'process' is helpful only if it's used often enough to deter wrongdoing. We doubt this one will be," SNAP's David Clohessy said.
In the law, Francis acknowledged that the church's canonical code already allowed for a bishop to be removed for "grave reasons." But he said he wanted to precisely state that negligence in handling abuse cases counted as one of those reasons.
Bishops "must undertake a particular diligence in protecting those who are the weakest among their flock," Francis wrote in the law, called a motu proprio.
The statute essentially does away with a proposal approved by Francis last year to establish an accountability tribunal inside the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to hear negligence cases. Francis' sex abuse advisory board had recommended that the Congregation prosecute negligent bishops because it already oversees actual sex abuse cases against clergy.
But that proposal posed a host of legal and bureaucratic issues and ran into opposition from bishops and the Vatican bureaucracy. In the end, Francis backed off and instead essentially reminded the four Vatican offices that already handle bishop issues that they were also responsible for investigating and punishing negligence cases involving abuse.