The National Catholic Review

The commission set up by Pope Francis to advise him on the Protection of Children has “decided” that Mr. Peter Saunders (UK), one of the two survivors of sexual abuse on this body, should “take a leave of absence from his membership to consider how he might best support the commission’s work.”

It announced this in a statement released to the press after its meeting on Saturday morning, Feb. 6. It said that at that meeting the commission members had “discussed the direction and purpose of the commission” and “as the result of this discussion” it took its decision.

Pope Francis appointed Mr. Saunders to the 17-member commission on Dec. 17, 2014. A British survivor of sexual abuse as a child, Mr. Saunders had set up Britain’s National Association for People Abused in Childhood to support survivors and develop better resources for responding to such abuse. He joined Marie Collins, an Irish survivor, whom the pope had appointed to the commission the previous March. Their presence gave added credibility to the commission and to the pope’s determination to deal with abusers, hold bishops accountable and ensure the protection of children and minors in all church institutions.

To understand today’s decision by the commission it is worth noting that from the beginning its role was meant to be an advisory one to the pope. Francis spelled this out clearly in a chirograph on March 22, 2014 when he wrote that its “specific task” is “to propose to me the most opportune initiatives for protecting minors and vulnerable adults, in order that we may do everything possible to ensure that crimes such as those which have occurred are no longer repeated in the Church. The commission is to promote local responsibility in the particular Churches, uniting their efforts to those of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, for the protection of all children and vulnerable adults.”

From the beginning, however, Mr. Saunders appeared to interpret his role as a more active, campaigning one, rather than advisory. He publicly expressed unease at what he perceived as the slow pace of the new commission, particularly regarding the accountability of bishops. He clearly overstepped his role as a commission member by giving statements to the media in that capacity in which he criticized what he saw as Cardinal George Pell’s failure to protect children in Australia, and the pope’s appointment of Bishop Juan Barros to the diocese of Osorno in Chile in January 2015. He threatened to resign if the pope did not rescind the latter’s nomination, because he believes there is credible evidence that the bishop covered up for a predator priest, Fernando Karadima.

The commission’s role, however, is to advise the pope how to deal with these and other matters, but Mr. Saunders clearly wanted it to take action in a more challenging and, perhaps, even confrontational way. And when it was made clear to him that the commission had no mandate whatsoever to deal with individual cases or to investigate cases of abuse, his public statements to the media—for instance in the case of the Chilean bishop—suggest that he took little account of this and clearly thought otherwise.

Mr. Saunders was in Rome this week for the third meeting of the papal commission. On the eve of that gathering, however, speaking to the Los Angeles Times, he expressed himself in highly critical terms of Francis, charging that the pope had said “phenomenally damaging and painful things about survivors” in relation to the Chile case, and said that people in that country now see the commission “as a laughingstock” and added that he, too, would consider it meaningless “unless he sacks Barros.”

His public role and challenge to the pope became a cause of real concern in the Vatican, and was seen as being distinctly unhelpful to the important task that Francis has given to the commission, and indeed risked damaging its credibility. With his latest comments to the L.A. Times, Mr. Saunders left the commission with little other option except to ask him to take a leave of absence.

The Associated Press reports that Mr. Saunders, in an interview, said that the commission members asked him to step aside after concluding they could no longer trust him to work within the scope of the commission's mandate. It quotes him as saying: "The commission members took a vote and apart from one abstention they agreed that they could no longer continue to work with me.” And, he added, "I do not want to prevent the work of the commission, the good work that the commission is doing from going ahead, so I had no choice but to step aside."


Later at a press conference at a hotel in Rome with Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean survivor of abuse by Fernando Karadima, Mr. Saunders read a written statement in which he charged that at this morning’s meeting “commission members reacted to my criticisms in a frightening way, acting as if dissent and free speech would make their work more difficult.”

Giving his account of what happened at the meeting, he said: “I was asked to consider what my role should be with the commission. I did not make a decision to take or accept any decision on a leave of absence. I said I would reflect on what I would do. I may well have been back in the meeting shortly.”  

However, he said, “I then heard that the Vatican had made a statement about my taking a leave of absence. I was never told in advance of any such statement and I find it outrageous that I was not told, much less that the statement occurred before I had had any time to reflect on what I might do next.”

Mr. Saunders then went onto clarify his position: “I have not left and am not leaving my position on the commission. I was appointed by His Holiness Pope Francis and I will talk only with him about my position.”


Crystal Watson | 2/7/2016 - 4:01am

I don't see why the fact that Saunders spoke to the press about what was happening was a bad thing - shrouding the actions of the commission in secrecy doesn't inspire trust or confidence. And the Pope needs to do that, given his record so far ...
- He was asked by an Irish abuse victim to remove Cardinal Brady, who has admitted covering up abuse, but he did not remove him and he's never even spoken of the other cardinals known to have covered up abuse, like Mahony and Law.
- The Pope refused to extradite Wesołowski when both Poland and the Dominican Republic asked.
- He approved Juan Barros as bishop, despite allegations of abuse cover-ups.
- When he visited the US, he actually complimented the US bishops on their handling of sex abuse!

And Cardinal Pell ... here's a talk at ABC with journalist David Marr from 2013 about Pell and sex abuse ...

Tim O'Leary | 2/8/2016 - 6:56pm

Crystal - And why wouldn't the Holy Father praise the US Catholic Bishops for the no tolerance measures they instituted after the John Jay Report in 2004? Where else in the world has the Church, or any other institution done more? Certainly not the US Public school system ( the UN ( or the UK,in Rotherham etc. (

As to the interview you linked to, I found it surreal, with lots of unchristian snide remarks and strange laughing throughout, from both Marr and his interviewer, Heather Ewart. Marr gleefully recounts his mission to get the Cardinal for a very long time, for not doing enough and, as the Cardinal admitted, and for failing to see what was going on. He is also livid that the Cardinal arranged for financial settlements for children in the diocese of Melbourne. Marr does admit that child abuse went on in other institutions but he seems only interested in getting Pell. He also seems paranoid about the supposed power of Pell and the Church, when the Church is continuously attacked for its moral teaching. Here is something for you to read on Marr On the essay Marr wrote, Cardinal Pell responded with a quote from GK Chesterton: 'A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.' Cardinal Pell's health seems to be failing, and no one escapes judgment day (including Wesolowski, you and me, Marr and Saunders). In this Year of Mercy, the victim warriors should reflect on whether they want to stay mired in unprovable accusations, smear jobs and hearsay innuendos of the past, or try to be a part of protecting children, in the Church and in other social institutions.

Crystal Watson | 2/6/2016 - 8:45pm

I think most people, like me, will find this dumping of Saunders by the commission to be just another sign that the Pope and the Vatican are not really serious about addressing the sex abuse scandal. BTW, Cardinal Pell is notorious for his poor handling of sex abuse in Australia.

Tim O'Leary | 2/7/2016 - 12:33am

I think you might be right, Crystal, for those who look into this superficially. It never seemed that Saunders was on board with maximizing prevention of future child abuse, but more with going after anybody who was seeking to separate the guilty from the innocent. Some people think a clerical collar or miter's hat is sufficient grounds for a guilty presumption. I will await the full investigation in Australia (which Pell will testify at) before assuming him guilty of protecting any abusing priest.

Tim O'Leary | 2/6/2016 - 8:12pm

I wrote this comment seven months ago on this website when Saunders slandered Cardinal Pell and it is even more apt now. Pity the Commission and the Pope only took action when the Pope himself is slandered.

What a mess! And not the "mess" the Holy Father was hoping for. I can see no alternative but to have Peter Saunders removed from the Pontifical Commission, at least until the Australian Royal Commission completes its investigation (Cardinal Pell has agreed to travel back to Australia to testify at the ongoing hearing).

Of course, a past history of sexual abuse is no guarantee of fairness and justice for a fellow Catholic and is certainly no excuse for slander of this caliber. He said of Pope Francis: "Let's give the process a chance" but he is doing the opposite.

I have tried to find out the full account of Peter Saunders' abuse to understand where he is coming from, but it is hard to find out any hard evidence: In interviews, he says he was abused by a family member for years, then 2 different Jesuits at a Jesuit school, then another lay teacher at another school. This has been repeated without any question in many places. But, have any of these alleged abusers been publicly identified by Saunders or charged or convicted by the police? Saunders should surely want them brought to justice first, before going after people where he is far removed from the evidence? All I can about abuse in New Malden is this very recent and alarming report from the police (called Operation Hydrant). There are 1,400 suspects, include 135 figures from TV, film or radio, 76 politicians involved in both local and national politics, 43 from the music industry and seven from the sporting world. The article says there were 116,000 reports of child sexual abuse in the UK this year (52,446 of abuse years past).

Steven Krause | 2/6/2016 - 7:14pm

"I was appointed by His Holiness Pope Francis and I will talk only with him about my position.” Well, apparently Mr. Saunders will also speak to the news media.

I can appreciate Mr. Saunder's frustration at the apparently slow pace of the commission. Our children certainly deserve all the protection we can give them, as quickly as possible. That said, he isn't helping to move the commission forward with these statements, just creating a distraction.

William Rydberg | 2/6/2016 - 4:44pm

Seems that neither the comission nor he was a right fit for each other. No doubt there will be blowback because of the obvious issues.

This kind of thing happens all the time in the work-a-day world. People come and go all the time.

Pray for all concerned...

I look forward to the end result of the comission, its results and recommendations..

Stephanie Barrett | 2/12/2016 - 8:24pm

I can understand the idea, that as a Vatican appointee. Mr Saunders needed to work within that system.

Given those rules, I am familiar with the Cardinal Pell situation. His testimony in Sydney, which
I listened to online was filled with, "I don't know, I am not aware of, and on & on.

As a practicing Catholic, familiar with abuse victims. They need to be fully recognized, supported
and helped if need be.

Supporting Cardinals or Bishops who have hidden, or moved around abusive priests, or in some
cases sold assets to avoid law suits, is not legal. Nor should it be permitted. The picture here is not just about Mr Saunders, it is about abuse and how the Commission is responding to the full issue.
the full response of Pope Francis's appointed