Pope Francis delivers his homily while celebrating Mass Sunday, Sept....

Pope Francis delivers his homily while celebrating Mass Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015, in Philadelphia. Credit: AP

Pope Francis broke new ground Sunday in the Catholic Church's long struggle to respond to a damaging clergy sex-abuse scandal with his unqualified promise to hold bishops accountable for their failures.

Francis has taken a number of steps to discipline bishops who failed to protect children, but the open-ended nature of his "promise of accountability for all" -- and his pledge to "follow the path of truth wherever it may lead" -- implied that he will go much further.

While the Catholic Church in the United States has made important moves to combat the problem, it has not held its upper echelon accountable.

Francis promised another course during his visit to Philadelphia when he told a small group of victims, "Clergy and bishops will be held accountable when they abuse or fail to protect children."

While his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI took a harder line against miscreant priests than did the previous pontiff, St. John Paul II, Benedict did not extend the crackdown to bishops who covered up the scandal of priests who repeatedly abused minors.

In the past, the Vatican's position was that canon law made it difficult for the pope to remove a bishop from leading a diocese.

But Francis approved creation of a Vatican tribunal in June to hear cases against bishops accused of covering up clergy sexual-abuse allegations. Shortly afterward, Archbishop John Nienstedt of Minneapolis-St. Paul resigned, two weeks after criminal charges were filed against his archdiocese for allegedly failing to protect children against abuse.

Francis also accepted the resignation earlier this year of Kansas City's Bishop Robert Finn, who was convicted three years earlier of failing to report suspected abuse.

Last year, he replaced a bishop in Paraguay.

There are other bishops whose lapses are a matter of public record -- documented in civil and criminal court cases -- but who continue to enjoy their status as prelates.

"Now the question is, 'How quickly are you going to hold these bishops accountable?' " said Donna Doucette, executive director of Voice of the Faithful, an organization of lay Catholics.

"You can't let them sit there for years and years . . . Also, take away the titles of bishops who retired. We are looking to see that actual steps will follow the rhetoric."

The "pope of surprises" did indeed surprise many observers with Sunday's comments, as they contrasted with the sympathy he showed for the American Catholic bishops when he spoke to them Wednesday at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle during his stop in Washington, D.C.

He told the bishops then that he was aware "of the courage with which you have faced difficult moments" resulting from the scandal.

That prompted Dennis Coday, editor of the National Catholic Reporter, to write that "the message he delivered . . . puts him back to square one" in handling the sex-abuse crisis.

But Sunday, the editor of the liberal Catholic weekly -- which since the 1980s has been in the forefront of reporting on sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church -- said Francis' latest statements encouraged him.

"He's hearing the message," he said.

Coday said some bishops have responded effectively to the scandal. Unlike others, they aren't likely to blame plaintiffs' lawyers or the news media for their troubles, he said.

On the other hand, "There's a creeping complacency in the bishops who aren't being vigilant."

He said it was encouraging that Francis praised the victims for having the courage to come forward, and that the pope apologized for the church's failure to listen to them in the past.

In the long run, the pope's greatest contribution may be that he is taking on problems that created the conditions for abusive priests to be transferred from parish to parish, with their wrongdoing kept secret.

Francis' willingness to admit being wrong, his emphasis on transparency, his openness to dissenting opinions, his call for bishops to enter into dialogue with the people -- all of these run counter to the culture of clericalism that allowed the problem of sexual abuse to fester in the first place.

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