Pope Francis revives lapsed commission on sex abuse

Pope Francis talks with Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, as they arrive for a meeting in the synod hall at the Vatican in this Feb. 13, 2015, file photo.  (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis has appointed 16 members (eight men and eight women) to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors headed by Cardinal Seán O’Malley, the Vatican announced today. The members come from 15 countries and all continents; they include “victims/survivors of clerical abuse” who have chosen not to identify themselves publicly.

The news came in a statement from the P.C.P.M., Feb. 17, which also revealed that it is creating an “International Survivor Advisory Panel,” that is “a new structure shaped by the voices of victims/survivors and building on the experience of the Survivor Advisory Panel of the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission in England and Wales.”

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Pope Francis has appointed eight men and eight women to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

It said Francis has re-confirmed Cardinal Seán O’Malley as president of the commission, which is an “advisory body” to the pope. Nine of the 16 are new members: Prof. Benyam Dawit Mezmur (Ethiopia); Arina Gonsalves, R.J.M. (India); Hon. Neville Owen (Australia); Ms. Sinalelea Fe’ao (Tonga); Prof. Myriam Wijlens (Netherlands); Prof. Ernesto Caffo (Italy); Sr. Jane Bertelsen, FMDM (U.K.); Ms. Teresa Kettelkamp (U.S.) and Mr. Nelson Giovanelli Rosendo Dos Santos (Brazil).

The seven returning members are: Dr. Gabriel Dy-Liacco (Philippines); Bishop Luis Manuel Alí Herrera (Colombia); Hans Zollner, S.J. (Germany); Hannah Suchocka (Poland); Sister Kayula Lesa, R.S.C. (Zambia) Sister Hermenegild Makoro, C.P.S. (South Africa), and Mons. Robert Oliver (U.S.).

In a statement accompanying the nominations, Cardinal O’Malley said Pope Francis “has given much prayerful consideration in nominating these members.” He said, “the newly appointed members will add to the commission’s global perspective in the protection of minors and vulnerable adults.” With these appointments, he said, “The Holy Father has ensured continuity in the work of our commission, which is to assist local churches throughout the world in their efforts to safeguard all children, young people and vulnerable adults from harm.”

Cardinal O’Malley said Pope Francis “has given much prayerful consideration in nominating these members.”

The Boston cardinal explained that the pope “has chosen these eight women and eight men from a multi-disciplinary field of international experts in safeguarding children and vulnerable adults from the crime of sexual abuse.” He added that “the representatives from several new countries will now offer their insights and experience to the commission, reflecting the global reach of the church and the challenge of creating safeguarding structures in diverse cultural contexts.”

Cardinal O’Malley added that survivors of clerical sexual abuse are included among the members announced today.

He recalled that since the commission’s foundation by Pope Francis, March 22, 2014, “people who have suffered abuse and parents of victims/survivors have been members.” This was a reference to the fact that Marie Collins, an Irish victim of clerical abuse, was appointed as a founding member of the P.C.P.M. then. She resigned on March 1, 2017, however, due to what she described as “the resistance by some members of the Vatican Curia to the work of the commission” and “the lack of cooperation,” particularly by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the dicastery most closely involved in dealing with cases of abuse. But she continued to work with the P.C.P.M. 

Survivors of clerical sexual abuse are included among the members announced today.

Another survivor, Peter Saunders (U.K.), was added to the commission, along with other members on Dec. 17, 2014, but the P.C.P.M. asked him to take a leave of absence on Feb. 16, 2016, and reflect on which way he could best contribute to its work. He later resigned from the commission, on Dec. 13, 2017, a few days before its first mandate ended.

While Ms. Collins and Mr. Saunders were well known publicly as victims and survivors of abuse, many victims/survivors prefer to keep their tragic and painful experience private. In this context, Cardinal O’Malley recalled that it “has always been the commission’s practice” to uphold “the right of each person to disclose their experiences of abuse publicly or not to do so,” and so the victims/survivors who have been appointed as members today “have chosen not do so publicly, but solely within the commission.” The P.C.P.M. “firmly believes that their privacy in this matter is to be respected,” he stated.

Cardinal O’Malley, who has a long experience in dealing with all matters relating to the abuse of minors, emphasized the fundamental importance of “listening to people who have been abused” and said, “the church needs to hear their voices.” He recalled that at the plenary assembly of the first commission in September 2017 it was decided that the new P.C.P.M. and staff “will begin its term by listening to and learning from people who have been abused, their family members and those who support them.”

He insisted that “this ‘victim/survivor first’ approach continues to be central to all the commission’s policies and educational programs” and reiterated that the commission “wishes to hear the voices of victims/survivors directly, in order that the advice offered to the Holy Father be truly imbued with their insights and experiences.” In this context, he revealed that the opening session of the plenary meeting of the new commission, which will be held next April, “will begin with a private meeting with several people who have experienced abuse.” He said the P.C.P.M. members “will then discuss various proposals to foster ongoing dialogue with victims/survivors from around the world.”

Cardinal O’Malley asserts that the commission’s “biggest future challenge” is that of “creating a culture of safeguarding.”

In a significant development of the commission’s work, Cardinal O’Malley revealed that “discussions have been underway for some months with a view to creating an International Survivor Advisory Panel” and explained that this would be “a new structure shaped by the voices of victims/survivors and building on the experience of the Survivor Advisory Panel of the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission in England and Wales.” He said Baroness Hollins from England, a founding member of the commission, who has chaired the working group to research and develop a proposal on the I.S.A.P. “will lead the presentation” on this to the April plenary meeting. He explained that “the goals” of the I.S.A.P. include “studying abuse prevention from the survivor’s perspective and being pro-active in awareness raising of the need for healing and care for everyone hurt by abuse.”

Cardinal O’Malley went onto assert that the commission’s “biggest future challenge” is that of “creating a culture of safeguarding.” He recalled that “the specific task” of the P.C.P.M. “is to propose to the Holy Father best practice initiatives for protecting minors and vulnerable adults from the crime of sexual abuse and to promote local responsibility in the particular churches for the protection of all children, young people and vulnerable adults.” Indeed, he said, “inculturating abuse prevention and protection into the life and action of local churches remains the P.C.P.M.’s future goal and greatest challenge.”

He reported that since its establishment in 2014, the P.C.P.M. “has worked with almost 200 dioceses and religious communities worldwide to raise awareness and to educate people on the need for safeguarding in our homes, parishes, schools, hospitals and other institutions.” He said the commission thanked “all those who have embraced this call” as well as “the Holy See for supporting and encouraging these efforts.”

Today’s announcement has been long awaited, ever since the mandate of the first commission ended on Dec. 17, 2017. When Pope Francis first created P.C.P.M. on March 22, 2014, he established it as “a permanent Commission attached to the Holy See” whose aim is “to promote the protection of the dignity of minors and vulnerable adults, using the forms and methods, consonant with the nature of the Church, which they consider most appropriate, as well as through their cooperation with individuals and groups pursuing these same objectives.”

Francis then stated 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.” It is also commissioned “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.”

When Pope Francis met the full commission in private audience in the Vatican on Sept. 21, 2017, he indicated that he wished the P.C.P.M. “to continue to be of great assistance in the coming years to the pope, the Holy See, bishops and major superiors throughout the world.”

In his address to the commission, Francis stated that “the Church irrevocably and at all levels intends to apply the ‘zero tolerance’ principle against the sexual abuse of minors.” Aware that some media had reported or suggested that while the pope uses strong words in relation to sexual abuse of children, he is soft or “acts with mercy” when it comes to punishing those responsible for such abuse, Francis, speaking off the cuff, told the P.C.P.M. members that he has “never” given a pardon to a priest who has been found guilty of the sexual abuse of minors “and never will” sign such a pardon. “Whoever has been condemned for the sexual abuse of minors can appeal to the pope for a pardon,” he said, but “I have never signed one of these and I never will. I hope that is clear!”

Then referring to the P.C.P.M.’s relation to survivors, Francis said, “I am fully confident that the commission will continue to be a place where the voices of the victims and survivors will be heard with interest as we have much to learn from them and from their personal stories of courage and perseverance.”

Today’s announcement came as Archbishop Charles Scicluna began the mission given him by Pope Francis days after his return from Chile and Peru, “to listen” to the Chilean victims of the Rev. Fernando Karadima who accuse Bishop Juan Barros of being present when his mentor abused them and of covering this up. The Maltese archbishop was scheduled to meet in New York today with Juan Carlos Cruz, the best known of these victims, and after that he will travel to Santiago, Chile, to listen to other victims and take testimonies from them next week. He will report back directly to Pope Francis on his return to Rome.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
James B
3 months ago

Not a lot of stability under Pope Francis.

Jim Spangler
3 months ago

Now that they have re established the commission, they need to investigate each Cardinal, and Bishop to make sure that they have not played a role in obstructing the priest that have committed sexual abuse and moved them around sheltering them from the law. This also include priest. They need to do an annual evaluation on each and every cleric within the church!

Larry Mulligan
3 months ago

What has the PCPM accomplished in its first three years? Window dressing, allowing the frozen chosen enough of an allusion that the issue is being addressed with transparency & accountability so the collection plates remain full. Meanwhile, Francis makes the devastating accusation that those accusing Barros are liars, without so much as an offer of supporting evidence. And this publication ignores the letter Francis wrote concerning the Karadima bishops on 01-31-15 to the Chilian hierarchy. Why?

Crystal Watson
3 months ago

Pope Francis' commissions are where topics he doesn't like go to die - think of the commission to study women deacons. The sex abuse commission hasn't accomplished anything useful. The two things that would make a huge difference in clerical sex abuse would be to make celibacy optional and to allow women to be priests, but the pope won't consider either of these.

Nora Bolcon
3 months ago

Well, I agree that women need to be made priests and since sexism increases child abuse where ever it exists this change alone would cause that kind of abuse to logically decrease. Optional celibacy is not likely to decrease child abuse in our church because there is no evidence that mandatory celibacy creates greater amounts of sexual or non-sexual child abuse. Statistically, married men have a slightly higher rate of child sexual abuse than unmarried or celibate men.

However, I am not against optional celibacy as long as it comes after women are being ordained priests, and without restriction, to the same exact Holy Orders and Sacrament as our current, celibate, male priests, so they can be promoted to Bishop, Cardinal and Pope.

I would publicly protest allowing optional celibacy to men if they tried to do that first since that is Gender Segregation.

Also, if we offer optional celibacy for priesthood, it has to be to both male and female priests equally.

Crystal Watson
3 months ago

Nora, I tried to leave a link to this 2013 article from ABC Religion & Ethics by Patrick Parkinson ... "Child Sexual Abuse and the Churches: A Story of Moral Failure?" ... but it got sent to moderation hell, so you would have to google it, but it gives evidence that about seven times as much sex abuse happens in the Catholic church as in other Christian churches.

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