VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has quietly reduced sanctions against a handful of pedophile priests, applying his vision of a merciful church even to its worst offenders in ways that survivors of abuse and the pope's own advisers question.
One case has come back to haunt him: An Italian priest who received the pope's clemency was later convicted by an Italian criminal court for his sex crimes against children as young as 12. The Rev. Mauro Inzoli is now facing a second church trial after new evidence emerged against him, the Associated Press has learned.
The Inzoli case is one of several in which Francis overruled the advice of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and reduced a sentence that called for the priest to be defrocked, two canon lawyers and a church official told AP. Instead, the priests were sentenced to penalties including a lifetime of penance and prayer and removal from public ministry.
In some cases, the priests or their high-ranking friends appealed to Francis for clemency by citing the pope's own words about mercy in their petitions, the church official told the AP, speaking on condition of anonymity because the proceedings are confidential.
With all of the emphasis on mercy, he is creating the environment for such initiatives, the church official said, adding that clemency petitions were rarely granted by Pope Benedict XVI, who launched a tough crackdown during his 2005-2013 papacy and defrocked some 800 priests who raped and molested children.
At the same time, Francis also ordered three longtime staffers at the congregation dismissed, two of whom worked for the discipline section that handles sex abuse cases, the lawyers and church official said.
One is the head of the section and will be replaced before leaving March 31. Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the others too will be replaced and that staffing in the office, which has a yearslong backlog of cases, would be strengthened after Francis recently approved hiring more officials.
"The speed with which cases are handled is a serious matter and the Holy Father continues to encourage improvements in this area," Burke told AP.
He also dispelled rumors that sex-abuse cases would no longer be handled by the congregation, saying the strengthened office would handle all cases submitted.
Burke said Francis' emphasis on mercy applied to "even those who are guilty of heinous crimes." He said priests who abuse are permanently removed from ministry, but are not necessarily dismissed from the clerical state, the church term for laicization or defrocking.
"The Holy Father understands that many victims and survivors can find any sign of mercy in this area difficult," Burke said. "But he knows that the Gospel message of mercy is ultimately a source of powerful healing and of grace."
St. John Paul II was long criticized for failing to respond to the abuse crisis, but ultimately he said in 2002 that "there is no place in the priesthood or religious life" for anyone who would harm the young. Francis has repeatedly proclaimed "zero tolerance" for abusive priests and in December wrote to the world's bishops committing to take "all necessary measures" to protect them.
But he also recently said he believed sex abusers suffer from a "disease" — a medical term used by defense lawyers to seek mitigating factors in canonical sentences.
Marie Collins, an Irish abuse survivor and founding member of Francis' sex-abuse advisory commission, expressed dismay that the congregation's recommended penalties were being weakened and said abusers are never so sick that they don't know what they're doing.
"While mercy is important, justice for all parties is equally important," Collins said in an email. "If there is seen to be any weakness about proper penalties, then it might well send the wrong message to those who would abuse."