The Pope has set up an unprecedented new tribunal system to examine bishops accused of failing to protect children from paedophile priests.
The new "judicial section" will be the first time the Holy See has put in place a means of calling to account and punishing those bishops who simply moved sex abuser priests from parish to parish, rather than calling in the police or taking steps to remove them from ministry.
The tribunals will also take on some of those cases still pending of alleged priest abusers.
Father Federico Lombardi, speaking after the Pope discussed the issue with his council of nine cardinals at his Santa Marta residence next to St Peter's in Rome, said the new office will come under the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which will judge all cases connected to abuse of children and vulnerable adults.
He said the move marks an important step in the ongoing process to hold Church leaders accountable for the actions of abusive priests. It is a step that survivors of abuse have been calling for over decades as essential to both healing and prevention. However, for some it did not go far enough, and was too little, too late.
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said: "The pope could have sacked dozens of complicit bishops. He has, however, sacked no one."
Becky Ianni, the network's Washington leader, said: "A process isn't necessarily prevention, especially if that process involves clergy sex crimes and cover ups and the Catholic hierarchy. The problem has never been a lack of Vatican officials with the specific process to investigate their complicit colleagues. The problem has been, and is, a lack of Vatican officials with the courage to investigate their complicit colleagues. Sadly, no words on paper can give timid, career-focused, self-serving monarchs the courage to do what's right – expose the corrupt colleagues. Let's be clear: we never asked for a new process to discipline bishops who endanger kids, protect predators, stonewall prosecutors, shrewd evidence, and mislead parishioners. We just asked that it be done. And it hasn't been done."
The Churches' Child Protection Advisory Service in the UK said the move in Rome was a "huge boost" to the case for mandatory reporting of child sex abuse in this country. Bishops will now be held fully accountable for how they deal with the priests under their authority.
Simon Bass, chief executive, said: "Pope Francis has also established a five year period within which these proposals are to be developed and evaluated. We say that the success of the tribunal should be judged according to one simple criterion. Since Bishops who cover up abuse should be removed from office immediately, how many will no longer be in post, for this reason, at the end of those five years? Only by ending what the Vatican has itself termed the abuse of office by bishops can children in the Church ever really be safe".
Terrence McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org, said it was a promising step but added: "This system will be coping with the complex interactions of enabling and offending that we see in cases involving bishops. Priests abuse children and so do bishops – bishops who offend are inevitably enablers, and the commission's plan must confront that sad fact."
The tribunal system is being created as a result of recommendations by a papal commissin on abuse set up by Pope Francis and led by Archbishop of Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley.
Abuse survivor Peter Saunders, who is on the commission, said: "When allegations against senior clergy are brought to the tribunal, we'll see whether it's working."