“The accountability of bishops is a source of great concern” to the 17 members of the Commission for the Protection of Minors established by Pope Francis in March 2014, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the president of this body, told reporters at a Vatican press briefing, February 7.
“My own priority is the accountability of bishops,” Marie Collins, a survivor of abuse from Ireland, told reporters. She wants “sanctions” for a bishop who fails to follow the Holy See’s directives in this field. One reporter noted that the Bishop Finn of Kansas City was a case in point. “There has to be consequences” for a bishop who fails in this area, Cardinal O'Malley said; the commission is working on a set of proposals to present to the Pope “that would allow the Church to respond in an expeditious way when bishops do not carry out their responsibilities.” Another commission member, Bill Kilgallon (New Zealand) told America that they “are nearing completion” on the proposal regarding accountability.
It is clear that the question of “the accountability of bishops” is a make or break issue for two survivors on the commission—Marie Collins (Ireland) and Peter Saunders (UK). While both said that they would not continue to be part of the commission if this question of accountability is not resolved in the next year or two, at the same time they expressed total confidence that Pope Francis would act decisively on their proposals.
The question of accountability was only one of several issues addressed during the press briefing chaired by Cardinal O’Malley. He was assisted by Mr. Peter Saunders (England)—founder of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC), and Sr. Kayula Gertrude Lesa RSC (Zambia)—who has worked with refugees and victims of human trafficking in Africa. They are both new members of the commission that is composed of 8 women and 9 men. most of whom were present at the briefing and made themselves available to the press afterwards.
The commission, which responds directly to the pope, is creating a number of “working groups” to deal with various aspects of their work, the cardinal explained. Marie Collins told America that the Pope had given the commission full freedom to decide which areas to focus on, she thinks they will end up with about 10 working groups; the number has not yet been finalized because new members from Africa, Asia and Latin America have yet to express their views.
O’Malley explained that the “working-groups” will be able to call on the expertise of individuals who are not members of the commission, including survivors. They can also draw on the assistance of institutions, such as universities. Thus, very many people could become involved in the work of the commission. One working group has been charged with the task of “outreach to survivors who might contribute to our efforts by their participation, especially concerning issues of prevention and sound guidelines,” the cardinal said. “It’s very important that survivors come forward and speak the truth,” Saunders added.
“Pope Francis has given the commission a very free hand. We’re there to speak out minds, not to be ‘yes’ men for the Vatican. There’s a determination in the commission that what happened to myself and so many others like me should never happen again,” Saunders, who was one of the survivors who met the Pope last July, told the press. And to prove his point he questioned Francis' remarks last Wednesday regarding spanking children, saying he didn’t agree. “We need to speak to the pope about this issue. There is no place in this day and age for inflicting pain,” he added. Some other commission members agreed with him. In actual fact corporal punishment is one of the issues the commission is addressing.
Saunders and Collins said they wished the commission would move forward with greater speed. It has taken over a year to begin to work properly. Much of the agenda will be addressed in working groups first, but the commission is holding two plenary sessions in Rome each year to finalize the work; the first, being held now, ends on the evening of Feb.8, the other will be in October. “The church and the Vatican seem to operate on a different time dimension to the rest of us, but when it comes to time children only get one stab at childhood,” Saunders remarked. Both he and Collins are hopeful things will move ahead with speed now the commission has its full complement of members from all continents. “The commission members are very determined that they can make a difference, and all of us are confident that the Pope will take our advice,” Saunders stated.
Addressing the media, the American cardinal hailed as “very important” the letter Pope Francis just sent to the Presidents of the Episcopal Conferences and to Superiors of Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
“I’m very grateful the Holy Father has sent out this letter. It reveals how important child protection is in this pontificate,” he said. In it the pope presents the new commission to the leadership of the Catholic Church, and invites them “to cooperate” with this body “in the arduous task of working for the safety of children.” The cardinal explained that the brief of the commission doesn't just include “children" it also includes "adolescents and vulnerable adults.”
In that letter, he said, Pope Francis reflected on his own experience of meeting victims of sexual abuse by priests and told church leaders that these encounters “reaffirmed my conviction that everything possible must be done to rid the church of the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors and to open pathways of reconciliation and healing for those who were abused." Francis went onto urge bishops and religious superiors “to meet with survivors and their loved ones” and emphasized that "such meetings are valuable opportunities for listening to those who have greatly suffered and for asking their forgiveness."
Drawing on his own experience in four dioceses, O’Malley expressed wholehearted agreement with the pope on the importance of bishops and religious superiors meeting survivors. It’s “a transforming experience,” and such encounters can motivate us even more strongly “to assure the safety of children and vulnerable adults and to offer survivors and their families pastoral care and provide for psychological assistance,” he said.
As a follow-up to the pope’s letter, the cardinal, as president of the commission, is asking all bishops’ conferences and religious superiors “to name a contact person who can help establish a line of communication” between them and the commission.
The pope mentioned in his letter that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had sent a communication (May 3, 2011) to all Bishops’ Conferences asking them to draw up guidelines for handling cases of sexual abuse of minors by clerics. Already 96 percent of the conferences have replied, the cardinal said, but some of the responses were "weak." O’Malley said one of the commission’s tasks will be to reach out to bishops conferences, especially those experiencing difficulty in developing such policies, to assist them in this.
The commission is also tasked “to promote education and child safety programs” and “to present methods for measuring compliance,” the cardinal said. It is also working “to develop seminars to educate Church leadership in the area of child protection.” It hopes to offer these programs for members of the Roman Curia and for newly appointed bishops who come to Rome from throughout the world, for orientation programs.
In addition to all this, the commission is also preparing materials for a Day of Prayer for all those who have been harmed by sexual abuse, the cardinal said. This underscores its responsibility “to work for spiritual healing” and helps” raise consciousness among the Catholic community about the scourge of child abuse.”
As President of the commission, the Boston cardinal said he has begun to reach out to Catholic funding organizations “to ask them to include some requirements concerning child protection in their guidelines for eligibility for funding.” The commission is aware that many countries that need to do much work to advance child protection are often terribly lacking in resources, and so it is asking the funding organizations to award grants in these counties for establishing child protection programs and providing training for church personnel. All this reflects the priority Pope Francis is giving to the protection of children.