Pope Francis, in a major move, Wednesday created a new Vatican tribunal to hear cases of bishops accused of failing to protect children from sexually abusive priests, the biggest step yet by the Holy See to address a crisis that has shaken the Catholic Church worldwide.
Some advocates for sex-abuse victims hailed the move as bold and groundbreaking. Others said it does not go far enough and said the Vatican should turn over any evidence of wrongdoing to prosecutors and law enforcement officials.
The pope's decision is the most extensive action the Vatican has taken to hold bishops accountable since the priest abuse scandal came to light in 2002 after reports by The Boston Globe.
"I think it's a wonderful step," said Michael Dowd, a Manhattan-based attorney who has represented 175 alleged victims, including some on Long Island. "It will have a dramatic, positive impact."
John Salveson, 59, who alleges he was abused by a priest in Oyster Bay's St. Dominic's parish starting in 1969, when he was a 13-year-old freshman at St. Dominic High School, said he was encouraged by the development. Robert Huneke, the priest he accused of molestation, has died.
"That's the right target," said Salveson, now of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. He testified before a Suffolk County grand jury that investigated sex abuse by priests in the diocese and released its report in 2003.
"Pedophiles are pedophiles, but they did the amount of damage they did because the bishops kept moving them around and protecting them and hiding them," Salveson said.
However, David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the measure doesn't go far enough.
"It's hard to get excited about yet another internal Vatican abuse panel," he said. "While some might find this hopeful, prudent people will withhold judgment unless and until we see complicit bishops being defrocked, demoted or disciplined."
Canon law provides sanctions for bishops who are negligent in their duties, but the Vatican has never been known to have punished or removed from office a bishop who covered up for clergy who raped or molested children -- a point of frequent criticism by victims and advocacy groups.
In April, Francis accepted the resignation of a Missouri bishop who was convicted of a misdemeanor charge for failing to report a suspected child abuser. That, however, was not a forced removal from office.
The Vatican said Francis had approved proposals made by his sexual abuse advisory board. Those initiatives create a mechanism by which the Vatican can receive and examine complaints of abuse of office against bishops and adjudicate them.
The Vatican said Cardinal Sean O'Malley, who leads the pope's sex abuse advisory commission, presented the proposals to Francis' cardinal advisers, who have been meeting this week. The panel approved the measures, as did Francis, who authorized funding for full-time personnel to staff the new office, the Vatican said.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said this means there now is a specific process by which the Vatican can deal with bishops who are negligent in handling cases of abuse in their territories. Now, with these proposals, "the process is defined," Lombardi said.
Clohessy, however, said, "The real answer lies in Vatican officials giving evidence of crimes and cover-ups to police and prosecutors."
Salveson said he doesn't think the church or Francis "will have any credibility until they start to pull those bishops out" who covered up the abuse.
Dowd said the church, in its own investigations, should disregard the legal statute of limitations in the secular criminal justice system that prohibits prosecution of sex abuse cases after a specified period of time. Many of the abuse allegations against priests date back years, or even decades.
"I think to restore credibility to the church, it's another essential step," Dowd said.