Pope Francis has approved the creation of a Vatican department to judge bishops accused of covering up or not preventing sexual abuse of minors. (Reuters)

The Vatican on Wednesday announced the creation of a new tribunal for holding accountable bishops who fail to deal properly with clergy sexual abuse.

The changes were aimed at improving what many see as a key deficit in the church’s handling of abuse: accountability for the bishops who oversee abusers. Bishops in the Catholic Church traditionally have significant autonomy and independence from one another. The new system shifts investigations into alleged bishop coverups to the Vatican’s powerful doctrine-enforcing body.

“It’s a major thing because it’s putting bishops on notice. It’s saying: ‘If you don’t deal with this, you have to face the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,’ and no one wants to face the CDF,” said Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, a psychologist and professor at the Catholic University of America who used to head St. Luke’s Institute — a key treatment center for priest-offenders.

Rossetti called the issue of accountability for bishops who oversee or cover up abusers “the cutting edge” for the church. Long ago, he noted, the Vatican established that abusers had committed the “gravest of crimes … but I think it’s true that this issue of accountability [for their bishop-bosses] was not as nailed down. This nails it down very clearly.”

The proposal was submitted to the pope by Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley and was drafted by a high-level body Francis created to suggest improvements in dealing with abusers and their superiors.

Major improvements have been made — particularly in the United States — in the past decade in creating a system to prevent clergy abuse, and some experts say the U.S. Catholic Church is a model for other institutions on things like background checks and volunteer training. However, bishops who oversaw the many priests removed for abuse are still very rarely held accountable.

It appears that the Vatican has yet to explicitly attribute the removal of a bishop to a coverup of sex abuse. However, two months ago, Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn stepped down – three years after he was convicted criminally in an abuse coverup.

[Vatican accepts resignation of U.S. bishop convicted of sex abuse coverup]

The new system gives the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith the authority to “judge bishops with regard to crimes of the abuse of office when connected to the abuse of minors,” Vatican spokesman the Rev. Thomas Rosica said in an e-mailed statement to The Washington Post.

The proposal doesn’t appear to include new penalties for bishops who are found guilty of covering up abuse.

Marie Collins, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, tweeted her initial response to the approval on Wednesday.

Some victims groups remain cautious in their response to the new accountability tribunal.

Terence McKiernan, president of a group that compiles worldwide data on clergy abuse, said the new process was a positive development but far from sufficient.

McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability, praised the process for putting bishop accountability cases into the CDF. Accusers “will be treated more respectfully and their cases acted upon if there are people dedicated to this topic, and that’s good. This was an obvious next step,” he said.

However, he called the CDF itself “a black box” that is usually not transparent to the general public regarding its decisions and investigations into priest-abusers, adding that transparency remains a “huge problem in the Catholic Church.”

Others questioned whether internal oversight was an adequate way to address abuse coverups in the church. “As long as clerics are in charge of dealing with other clerics who commit and conceal child sex crimes, little will change,” said Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, in an emailed statement. SNAP, Blaine said, would prefer to see church officials support reforms in “secular abuse laws so that clerics who hurt kids and hide predators will be criminally charged. ”

[This post, first published at 8:55 a.m., has been updated multiple times] 

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