Pope Francis has decreed that Roman Catholic bishops who are found to be "negligent" when dealing with priests accused of abusing children can be removed from office.
A new Vatican law the pope issued Saturday appeared to be a response to a long-standing demand by Catholic activists in the United States who have denounced what they saw as the church's failure to take action against pedophile priests.
The papal decree made clear that even bishops who are not personally accused of abusing children can be removed from their posts if they are shown to have failed to protect their congregations from abusive priests.
Bishops already have faced the possibility of losing their jobs if "grave reasons" for their removal are found. The new papal decree streamlined the process of ecclesiastical investigations in abuse cases and stated explicitly that negligence in their official conduct could result in high-ranking clerics' removal.
Victims of sex abuse by priests in the United States and elsewhere have long complained that some bishops cover up such offenses, usually by transferring priests involved to another parish but not reporting their actions to police.
The new procedures call for the Vatican to open an investigation when "serious evidence" of a bishop's negligence is presented. The bishop will be informed and allowed to defend himself and, if he is found guilty, will be allowed to resign rather than be publicly dismissed.
Any decision to terminate a bishop's appointment would have to be ratified by the pope and his legal advisers.
The Roman Catholic Church, estimated to have more than one billion members worldwide, has been rocked for the past 15 years by scandals involving priests who abused children but escaped criminal prosecution. Many cases were reported in the United States, but similar sex-abuse controversies arose in other countries where Catholicism is widely practiced.