Pope Francis on Saturday made his first appointments to a special commission intended to signal the Vatican’s new resolve in tackling the clerical sexual abuse problem, a group that includes an equal number of women and men, more laypeople than clergy and an outspoken Irish activist who was abused by a priest as a child.
In recent months, Francis has been criticized by advocacy groups for abuse victims, especially after an interview in which he strongly defended the Catholic Church’s handling of the sexual abuse crisis. Last month, a U.N. commission issued a stinging report on the church’s handling of abuse cases, and some advocacy groups have considered the pope’s appointments to the commission a telling signal of his commitment to combating the problem.
The eight names released Saturday suggest that Francis had deliberately shaken up the usual way of doing things at the Vatican: Four of the members are female, including Marie Collins, an Irish woman who was abused as a girl in the 1960s and later became a national activist to help other victims. In 1997, she also pushed the authorities in Ireland to prosecute the priest who abused her, the Vatican said.
Collins said in a telephone interview that she was shocked when she learned of her appointment Friday, and felt “an enormous weight because there’s a lot of expectations for this commission, particularly from survivors.”
She said the commission’s priorities should include requiring dioceses to report abuse to civil authorities, responding to victims with a pastoral and not an adversarial legalistic approach, and holding bishops who covered up accountable.
“Until bishops who protected abusers are removed, it’s very hard to have confidence,” she said.
Among the three clergy members on the panel, the highest ranking is Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley of Boston, who has been a central figure in the church’s response on the issue in the United States and is among eight cardinals advising Francis on Vatican reform.
The scope of the commission and suggestions for future members will be determined by the commission itself, said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.
Most of the members announced Saturday are from Europe and the United States, but the commission is expected to eventually include more people from developing nations, where the Catholic Church is growing most rapidly and the issue of child sexual abuse is still taboo.
Abuse victims and their advocates ranged in their reactions from hope to skepticism. They noted that previous panels appointed by bishops to showcase the participation of lay experts on sexual abuse ultimately had no ability to carry out the recommendations they made.
Colm O’Gorman, who is the founder and former director of the advocacy group One in Four in Ireland, said, “This is perhaps the first development of any real significance in this papacy when it comes to this issue.”
“What matters most now is: What is the purpose of the commission? What are its terms of reference and what are its powers?” O’Gorman said. “Because too often we’ve seen commissions, in the U.S., in Ireland and in other parts of the world like Australia, that ultimately run into sand” and accomplish little.
The other members on the commission are Dr. Catherine Bonnet of France; Sheila Hollins, a mental health specialist in Britain; Claudio Papale, a canon lawyer from Italy; Hanna Suchocka, a former ambassador to the Vatican from Poland; the Rev. Humberto Miguel Yáñez of Argentina; and the Rev. Hans Zollner of Germany.