VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis is studying how to speed up the handling of allegations of sexual abuse by clergy, the Vatican said on Wednesday, after a high-profile case in Chile put a new spotlight on the scandal.
The topic was a main point of discussion in three days of meetings between the pope and a group of nine cardinals from the around the world who gather four times a year at the Vatican to discuss reform, Church finances and other issues.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said they had discussed “various options” to shorten procedures in cases of abuse.
They are currently handled by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the Vatican’s doctrinal department.
Burke said that among the options discussed was to decentralize procedures by setting up regional tribunals that would hear cases under the auspices and guidance of the CDF.
The CDF hears canonical cases, applying Church laws that could lead to the defrocking of accused priests if found guilty. The Church procedures are distinct from criminal procedures in civilian courts in places where the crime is committed.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, the city where the worldwide crisis of sexual abuse first exploded, and a key adviser of the pope, is studying the decentralization proposal.
The proposal followed intense criticism of the pope for defending a bishop in Chile accused of covering up sexual abuse.
During his trip to the South American nation last month, Francis at first rejected accusations that Bishop Juan Barros had hidden information about the abuse of minors by his mentor, Father Fernando Karadima.
After his return from Chile, Francis did an about-face and dispatched Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, one of the Church’s most experienced sexual abuse investigators, to Santiago to hear more testimony in the Barros case.
Barros, appointed by Francis to the diocese of Osorno in 2015, has said he was unaware of any wrongdoing by Karadima. Karadima always denied the allegations.
After a Church trial in 2011, the Vatican banned Karadima from public ministry and ordered him to follow a life of prayer and penitence, but he avoided criminal prosecution because under Chilean law too much time had elapsed since the offences. Now 87, he still lives in Chile.
While Scicluna was sent to Chile to hear testimony in the Barros case, during his visit Catholics who say they were abused by members of other religious orders came forward and asked him to investigate their cases as well.
Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Alison Williams