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Pope sets new policy for removal of negligent bishops

June 06, 2016

Pope Francis has approved new procedures that provide for the removal of bishops who are negligent in addressing complaints of sexual abuse or other serious issues.

With a motu proprio entitled Come una Madre Amorevole ("As a Loving Mother"), issued on June 4, the Pope clarified the Code of Canon Law to establish that a bishop may be removed form office for negligence that results in grave harm to the faithful. The document specifies that such harm might include "physical, moral, spiritual, or patrimonial" damage.

The motu proprio does not constitute a major change in canon law, which already provided for the removal of a bishop "for grave cause." However, the papal document makes it clear that negligence in responding to complaints of sexual abuse always constitutes a "grave cause," whereas in other cases the gravity of the damage must be demonstrated. The document also clearly establishes that a bishop can be ousted even when he is not personally guilty of serious moral misconduct. 

Pope Francis released the new policy almost a full year after he had announced plans to create a new ecclesiastical tribunal that would allow for disciplinary action against bishops who fail to act on sex-abuse complaints. The Vatican had come under fire recently for failure to take action on the creation of that tribunal or the appointment of judges. The June 4 announcement did not allude to the tribunal; the new canonical procedures appear to replace that plan.

Under the new procedures, a Vatican congregation will be responsible for investigation all serious indications of episcopal negligence. The bishop will be given an opportunity to defend himself. If the congregation finds him guilty of negligence, it can demand his resignation or issue a decree removing him from office. Any such decision must be approved by the Roman Pontiff in consultation with a "college" of canon-law advisers. Pope Francis will presumably name these advisers; the Vatican press office indicated that the group would be "constituted of cardinals and bishops."

The provisions of Come una Madre Amorevole apply to prelates who head dioceses and archdioceses or eparchies of the Eastern Catholic churches. They also apply to the superiors of religious orders. The provisions of the motu proprio are to be enforced by the relevant Vatican dicasteries: the Congregation for Bishops (for bishops in most dioceses); the Congregation for the Eastern Churches (for Eastern Catholic eparchs); the Congregation for Evangelization (for bishops serving in mission territories); and the Congregation for Religious (for provincials of religious orders). 

The motu proprio does not provide a role for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is currently assigned to handle sex-abuse complaints. That division of responsibility underlines the point that Come una Madre Amorevole applies not to sexual misconduct, but to the failure of bishops to carry out their responsibilities, in handling abuse charges or in other grave matters.



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