VATICAN CITY (AFP) - Catholic bishops guilty of negligence in child abuse cases can now be dismissed from office, Pope Francis said on Saturday in a move hiking pressure on the Church's hierarchy.
The move was announced just two weeks after the pope came under fire for meeting a top French cardinal accused of covering up for a paedophile priest in a scandal that has shaken France's Catholic Church.
The decision, which will also apply to other senior Church officials, was unveiled in a papal decree which said such cases would now fall under existing canon law allowing for prelates to be sacked for "serious reasons".
"The Church, like a loving mother, loves all her children, but treats and protects with special affection the smallest and most helpless," the papal decree said.
Pope Francis came to power promising a crackdown on cover-ups and a zero tolerance approach to abuse itself, but victims' groups have expressed discontent with his record on ridding the Church of the taint of paedophilia.
Known as an Apostolic letter, the text stresses the need for "special diligence" in caring for minors and vulnerable adults, with those who demonstrate negligence in tackling cases of abuse facing the threat of dismissal.
That diligence is required even "without grave moral culpability" on the part of the bishop involved, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said in an explanatory statement.
"For removal from office, in the case of abuse of minors, it is 'sufficient for the lack of diligence to be grave' while in other cases a 'very grave' lack of diligence must be demonstrated," he added.
A "college of legal experts" - cardinals and bishops - has been set up to assist the pope reach a decision arriving at a definitive decision in a particular case.
A string of historic paedophilia cases in North America and Europe has unleashed widespread criticism of the Catholic hierarchy, including allegations that in some cases bishops were aware of sexual predators among the priesthood but failed to curb them.
Last month, Francis held a surprise meeting with French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the under-fire Archbishop of Lyon who is suspected of covering up for a paedophile priest.
The meeting came just days after the pope was quoted as saying it would be "nonsensical and imprudent" to seek Barbarin's resignation at this stage.
It was not immediately clear whether the papal decree would impact on the Barbarin case.
French examining magistrates are currently carrying out two preliminary investigations to decide whether to pursue charges against the archbishop for his handling of the allegations against Bernard Preynat, a priest in his diocese who has been charged with sex abuse.
In a reaction, a US group representing victims of paedophile priests suggested that the Vatican's initiative on Saturday sought to put a brake on efforts to stop abusers and bring them to justice.
"We're extraordinarily sceptical," David Clohessy, director of Snap, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said in a statement.
"Popes and bishops have long had the power, but not the will, to oust those who protect predators and endanger kids. They refuse to do this, and the consequences are devastating," Clohessy said.
"When it's advantageous to move quickly, Catholic officials move quickly. When they want to move slowly, or not at all, they set up commissions and 'processes' and the like."