In a new Apostolic Letter, issued motu proprio, Pope Francis has established new norms providing for the removal of Bishops (or those equivalent to them in Canon Law) from their offices in cases where they have “through negligence, committed or omitted acts that have caused grave harm to others, either with regard to physical persons, or with regard to the community itself.”
The Apostolic Letter “Come una madre amorevole” (As a Loving Mother) also clarifies that, with regard “to abuse of minors or vulnerable adults, it is sufficient that the lack of diligence be grave.”
The full text of the Apostolic Letter, in Italian, can be found here
In a note explaining the new procedures, the Director of the Holy See Press Office, Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, said, “The Apostolic Letter insists on the importance of vigilant care for the protection of minors and vulnerable adults, calling for a ‘particular diligence.” Therefore, he continued, “it clarifies that negligence regarding cases of sexual abuse committed against children or vulnerable adults are among the ‘grave causes’ that justify removal from ecclesiastical Offices, even of Bishops.”
The new Letter, according to Father Lombardi, establishes a procedure for carrying out a Canon already present in both the Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of Eastern Churches. It is not a penal procedure, he said, because it concerns cases of negligence, rather than with a crime that has been committed. For the same reason, the Dicasteries charged with following through on the procedures include the Congregations for Bishops, for the Evangelization of Peoples, for Oriental Churches, and for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, instead of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Father Lombardi drew attention especially to two points in the Apostolic Letter. First, the “lack of diligence” necessary for removal from office can exist even be “without grave moral fault” on the part of the Bishop.
Second, in cases concerning the abuse of minors “it is sufficient that the lack of diligence be ‘grave,’ while in other cases it is required that the lack of diligence be ‘very grave’.” This effectively lowers the standard necessary for a Bishop to be removed from office when there is negligence with regard to cases of sexual abuse.
In cases involving important decisions regarding Bishops, including those foreseen in the Apostolic Letter, the specific approval of the Holy Father is necessary. Father Lombardi noted that this is not a new disposition.
However, the Apostolic Letter does introduce a new “dedicated College of jurists” (It: “apposite Collegio di giuristi”), which will assist the Holy Father before he makes a definitive decision. Father Lombardi said the College would be expected to be composed of Cardinals and Bishops.
Finally, Father Lombardi noted that because the Apostolic Letter concerns new procedural norms, the question of retroactivity does not apply, as law on the possibility of removal from office “for grave cause” already exists. The Letter simply establishes procedures for the application of the already existing law.