A statement said the department 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”.
Victims’ groups 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.
Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi said the bishops could also be judged if they had failed to take measures to prevent sexual abuse of minors.
The complaints against the bishops would be initially investigated by one of three Vatican departments, depending on under whose jurisdiction the bishops fall, before being judged by the doctrinal department.
“This development is potentially quite significant. For the first time there may be a clear road map for disciplining bishops who conceal or enable child sexual abuse,” said Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability.org, an independent group that helps tackle the issue in the Catholic Church.
“But the path already promises to be bumpy. How can the Vatican discipline enablers when its own top ranks are occupied by them?”
She mentioned Australian Cardinal George Pell, who has been accused of covering up sexual abuse by a priest in the 1970s when Pell was a priest.
Pell, now head of the Vatican’s economic secretariat, has denied the accusations, saying he has always taken a strong stand against child abuse. He denies moving priests accused of abuse between parishes or offering one victim inducements to drop a complaint.
The Vatican said the pope had approved proposals made to him by a commission advising him on how to root out the sexual abuse.
Part of the task of the commission, which is made up of 17 clerics and lay people from around the world, is to help dioceses put in place “best practices” to prevent abuse and work with victims in a process of healing. Eight members are women.
The scandal has seen known abusers shunted from parish to parish instead of being defrocked and handed over to authorities.
Last February, Francis ordered bishops to cooperate as a matter of priority with the commission to root out “the scourge” of the sexual abuse even if it unearths new scandals. Canon law already does provide sanctions for bishops who are negligent in their duties, but the Vatican was never known to have meted out punishment for a bishop who covered up for an abuser. Now, with these proposals, “the process is defined,” said Fr Lombardi.