Pope Francis has set up a new judicial body to deal specifically with the most serious cases of sexual abuse committed by clergy.
The Vatican said today that the college, which will be overseen by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), had been set up because of the large number of cases and the need to deal with them more swiftly.
It will also deal with the abuse of the confessional.
The college will consist of seven cardinals or bishops who can come from within or outside the CDF and will be chosen by the Pope.
Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi the group would tackle a “backlog” of appeals from clergy against whom allegations of abuse had been made.
He said that ordinary members of the congregation only meet once a month and with four to five new appeals a month, each with a lot of paperwork, "a huge number" of cases was waiting to be heard.
He said: "Hearing the appeals is a very important job, especially those on abuse of minors, and the backlog of cases is at risk of absorbing all the time of the Congregation.”
The document announcing the new body outlines a special procedure for any bishop accused of grave crimes. He “shall have his case examined by the whole body of members of the Congregation – the Ordinary Session – which may also examine other specific cases upon papal request, and/or examine cases referred to it by the newly created College.”
The college will need to periodically inform the ordinary session of the CDF about its decisions.
The new rules come into effect today and were printed in L’Osservatore Romano, the newspaper of the Holy See.
A papal rescript or ‘Rescriptum', signed by Secretary of State cardinal Pietro Parolin, said: “The College shall provide itself for greater efficiency in the processing of appeals of clergy for 'delicta graviora' [grave crimes], without diminishing its expertise in the subject.”
Last December Pope Francis announced the creation of a commission of lay and ordained Catholics that would be devoted to child protection and the pastoral care of victims of sexual abuse by priests.
The commission was an initiative proposed by the group of eight (now nine) cardinals Pope Francis appointed shortly after his election to advise him on church reform.
Above: Francis addresses pilgrims in a windy St Peter's Square. Photo: CNS