VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Tuesday responded to complaints that he has largely ignored the clerical sex abuse scandal, agreeing to assemble a panel of experts to advise the Holy See on protecting children from pedophiles and helping abuse victims heal.
It remains to be seen if the experts will take up one of the core issues behind the problem — making bishops who shelter abusive priests accountable — and victims groups immediately questioned whether another church study group would really make progress on an issue that has vexed the Vatican for decades.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, announced the creation of the commission Thursday at the conclusion of a meeting between Francis and his eight cardinal advisers who are helping him govern the church and reform the Vatican bureaucracy.
Boston was the epicenter of the 2002 clerical sexual abuse scandal in the U.S.
O’Malley told reporters that the commission, made up of international lay and religious experts on sex abuse, would study current programs to protect children, better screen priests, train church personnel and suggest new initiatives for both the Holy See to implement inside the Vatican City State and for bishops to implement around the world.
The initiative came as a surprise, and seemed hastily put together as if Francis wanted to signal a get-tough approach amid recent questions about his commitment to fighting abuse.
Francis’ rather tepid comments to Dutch bishops last week about the need to help victims heal, plus his failure to meet with sex abuse victims while showing tremendous compassion to the sick and disabled every week, had fueled criticism from victims’ groups and advocates. O’Malley announced broad areas of study that the Vatican has already signaled were priorities for bishops to focus on, but provided no details about who would be on the commission, or what its size, structure or scope would be.
In announcing the commission — the fourth of Francis’ papacy — O’Malley noted that the Vatican’s involvement in the sex abuse crisis has been largely judicial in nature, with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2001 taking over church trials for priests accused of raping and molesting children.
Now, he said, Francis wants input for a pastoral response, as well.
He said he didn’t know if the matter of bishop accountability would be undertaken by the new commission.
Advocates for victims of clerical abuse have long denounced the Vatican’s refusal to sanction bishops who shielded abusive priests and moved them from parish to parish rather than report them to police.
That practice, coupled with the church’s culture of secrecy and fear of scandal, enabled pedophiles to continue molesting children for decades while the Vatican turned a blind eye.
“Quite frankly that’s something that the church needs to address,” O’Malley said, when asked if the commission would take up the issue. “I’m not sure whether it will be this commission or the CDF (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) or the Congregation for Bishops.”
BishopAccountability.org, an online resource for the clergy sex abuse, cautiously welcomed the initiative but said the commission’s scope as presented by O’Malley had two “crucial omissions.”
“There is no indication that the commission will study either the Vatican’s culpability or the crucial need to discipline bishops, religious superiors and other church supervisors who enable child rape and molestation,” said Ann Barret Doyle, the site’s co-director.
SNAP, the main U.S. victim’s group, dismissed the initiative as useless and said the only thing that will protect children is if the church punished negligent bishops and ordered them to publicly disclose the names of molesters.
“This simple step would immediately make kids safer,” said David Clohessy, SNAP director. “But instead, parents and parishioners are being offered yet another toothless church panel.”
In an apparent coincidence, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis on Thursday published a list of 34 priests who had been credibly accused of sexually abusing minors, following months of criticism that church leaders mishandled such allegations. And separately, the disgraced Legion of Christ religious order revealed that a superior who was in charge of the bulk of its American priests-in-training in the U.S. for over a decade had sexually abused at least one novice.
Francis’ commission was announced just days after the Vatican submitted its responses to a U.N. committee monitoring its implementation of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Vatican dodged many of the committee’s questions about sex abuse by arguing that it’s up to bishops and dioceses to implement programs to protect children, not the Holy See.
Asked about the seeming contradiction, O’Malley said competence for such issues still lies with local church leaders.
“The Holy See will try and help to identify best practices,” he said. “Certainly we hope that the Holy See will be able to model what those best practices are as a way of helping other dioceses and bishops conferences to have a response that is truly adequate and pastoral.”