Pope Francis approved on Wednesday an unprecedented Vatican tribunal to judge bishops accused of covering up or failing to prevent sexual abuse of minors, but one victims' group branded the move as too little too late.
A statement said the tribunal would come under the auspices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's doctrinal arm, "to judge bishops with regard to crimes of the abuse of office when connected to the abuse of minors."
The U.S.-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said the pope should have gone much further.
"(The pope) could have sacked dozens of complicit bishops. He has, however, sacked no one," SNAP said in a statement.
Groups representing victims have for years been urging the Vatican to establish clear procedures to make bishops more accountable for abuse in their dioceses, even if they were not directly responsible for it.
Bishops have long been considered masters of their dioceses and largely unaccountable when they bungle their job, with the Vatican stepping in only in cases of gross negligence.
The sex abuse scandal exploded decades ago in the U.S., Ireland, Australia, and elsewhere in large part because bishops and heads of religious orders moved pedophile priests around or sent them off for therapy, rather than report the crimes to police or conduct church trials as canon law requires. Their aim was to prevent scandal and hold onto their priests at almost any cost. The U.N. compared the Vatican’s handling of the problem to torture.
The Vatican's initiative comes as U.S. prosecutors are seeking to hold the church hierarchy responsible for failing to protect children from harm.
The Vatican said Francis had approved proposals made by his sexual abuse advisory board, which includes survivors of abuse as well as experts in child protection policies.
Details must still be worked out, including possible punishments and the statute of limitations to determine whether old cases of negligence by bishops dating back 20 or 30 years can now be heard.
The congregation currently reviews all cases of priests who have abused minors and the statute of limitations is 20 years, though the congregation can waive that limit.
Terrence McKiernan, president of the online resource BishopAccountability.org, said the new tribunal was "a promising step" and that it was particularly significant that the Vatican was allocating senior staff and funds to it. But he said there were already several well-known cases of active bishops and cardinals who failed in their duty to protect children.
"This system will be coping with the complex interactions of enabling and offending that we see in cases involving bishops," he said in a statement. "Priests abuse children and so do bishops — bishops who offend are inevitably enablers, and the commission's plan must confront that sad fact."