June 13, 2016

VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis will set up a panel of legal experts to help him decide whether to remove a religious superior or bishop from office for failing to protect minors and vulnerable adults from sex abuse.

Vatican offices will continue to investigate claims of negligence on the part of bishops, ordinaries or religious superiors under their jurisdiction.

But the pope - who makes the final decision about a bishop's removal from office - will now be assisted by a papally appointed "college of jurists," according to procedures that take effect Sept. 5.

In an apostolic letter, dated June 4, the pope reaffirmed that bishops of a diocese or eparchy and those responsible for other kinds of particular churches can be "legitimately removed" for negligence.

In order for it to be grounds for removal, such negligence - either through omission or commission - will have had to cause "serious harm to others," including individuals or a community, the letter said.

"The harm can be physical, moral, spiritual" or to property.

The letter clarified that it normally takes a "very serious" lack of due diligence for a bishop to be removed, however, when it comes to a failing to protect children and vulnerable adults from abuse, a "serious" lack of due diligence "is sufficient" grounds for removal.

The new procedures are "clearly an important and positive step forward by Pope Francis," said Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

While all members of the Church have a duty to safeguard and protect children and others from abuse, bishops of dioceses and eparchies, apostolic administrators and vicars, and those who lead a territorial prelature or abbacy must be especially diligent "in protecting the weakest of those entrusted to them," the pope's letter said.