VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis will establish a commission to advise him on protecting children from sexually abusive priests and on how the Catholic Church should counsel victims, the Vatican said Thursday. The announcement signaled the pope’s first concrete step to address one of the most sensitive issues facing his papacy.
The timing of the announcement, two days after a U.N. panel criticized the Vatican over its handling of abuse cases, suggested that the pope and his closest advisers want to be seen to be tackling the issue with greater firmness than in the past.
The announcement was a forthright acknowledgment by the Vatican of the enduring problem of abusive priests, and it fit with Francis’ pattern of willingness to set a new tone in the governance of the church. But the announcement also elicited a mixed reaction, reflecting some skepticism, particularly among victims and their advocates, over whether the creation of a new commission would address the problems.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a leading group representing the Christian clerical hierarchy in the United States, called the pope’s move “a most welcome initiative.” In a statement, the group said: “Abuse of minors is a sin and a crime, and every step must be taken to eradicate this blight. Such abuse is especially grave when committed by anyone in ministry in our church.”
At the same time, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, the leading U.S.-based support group for victims of abuse by clergy, called the news a disappointment that reflected badly on the new pope. David Clohessy, executive director of the group, said the announcement suggested that the Vatican remained strongly resistant to making sexually abusive members of the clergy and their church protectors accountable to external criminal prosecution.
“A new church panel is the last thing that kids need,” Clohessy said in a telephone interview from St. Louis. “Church officials have mountains of information about those who have committed and those who are concealing horrible child sex crimes and cover-ups. They just have to give that information to the police.”
The suggestion to set up the commission came from the group of eight cardinals brought together by the pope a month after his election in March to advise him on reforming the Vatican’s labyrinthine bureaucracy.
Precisely who will serve on the advisory commission and what authority it will have remained unclear. But Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, the only American among the eight cardinals advising the pope on the issue, said Thursday that it would include priests, men and women from religious orders and lay people with expertise in safeguarding children, and that it would offer advice on pastoral care rather than judicial functions. That seemed to signal that it would not make proposals for exposing or punishing abusive clerics.
The panel will have a broad mandate including the development of “norms, procedures and strategies for the protection of children and the prevention of abuse of minors,” the Vatican said in a statement.
It could also develop guidelines for cooperating with civil authorities, reporting of crimes and compliance with civil law, the Vatican said. Procedures for “screening and checking of previous offenses” and “the state of action of requests for psychiatric evaluation” could also be examined.