(CNN)Pope Francis has created a church tribunal to judge bishops who fail to protect children from sexually abusive priests, the Vatican announced Wednesday, a move long sought by abuse victims and their advocates.
'Sea change' in Catholic sex abuse scandal
The new court will be part of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Catholic Church's chief watchdog. Since 2001, the congregation has judged priests accused of sexual abuse, but there has been no Vatican office with a similar role to judge bishops.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said the Pope will appoint a secretary and permanent staff for the tribunal. The tribunal was proposed by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which was appointed last year by Pope Francis.
Longtime critics of the Vatican called Wednesday's move a "sea change" within the Catholic Church.
"Priests abuse children, and so do bishops," said Terence McKiernan, president of the watchdog group BishopAccountability.org. "Bishops who offend are inevitable enablers, and the commission's plan must confront that sad fact."
Critics of the church's handling of its sexual abuse scandal, which has involved thousands of priests and victims, have often argued that bishops who quietly shuffled abusive priests from parish to parish -- tacitly allowing the crimes to continue -- should be punished.
To date, one American bishop, Robert Finn of Kansas City, has been removed from office. Finn was convicted in 2012 on charges of failing to report suspected child abuse. The Vatican accepted Finn's resignation in April, though without offering a reason.
Last week, prosecutors in Minnesota charged the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis with six counts related to a sexually abusive ex-priest.
Advocates for sexual abuse victims gave the new tribunal qualified approval.
"Time will tell whether these moves actually result in holding bishops accountable for cover-ups of crimes," Boston-based church reform group Voice of the Faithful said. "But these steps are the most promising the Vatican has yet taken."
The new court was advocated by Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley, who has long pushed the Vatican to discipline bishops who failed to protect children. But at their semi-annual meeting in St. Louis on Wednesday, U.S. Catholic bishops seemed taken by surprise at the move. Several suggested they first heard of the new tribunal by reading news reports Wednesday morning.
"I don't have a lot of background information on it," said Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. However, Kurtz said, he welcomes the Pope's new tribunal. "We are eager to cooperate, and we know it's a direction that we have to take seriously."
Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, who is also in St. Louis for the meeting of Catholic bishops, said the tribunal does not represent the first time that popes have held bishops accountable.
"Throughout history popes have deposed bishops for various reasons," he said.
Few, however, have been deposed during the church's devastating sexual abuse scandal.