‘The accountability of bishops is a source of great concern” to the 17 members of the Commission for the Protection of Minors, said Cardinal Seán O’Malley, O.F.M.Cap., leader of the Archdiocese of Boston and the president of the body, at a Vatican press briefing on Feb. 7.
Marie Collins of Ireland, a survivor of abuse herself and a member of the commission since it was established by Pope Francis in March 2014, told reporters she wants “sanctions” for bishops who fail to follow the Holy See’s directives on child sexual abuse.
“There has to be consequences” for a bishop who fails in this area, Cardinal O’Malley agreed. 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 of New Zealand, told America that commission members “are nearing completion” on the proposal regarding accountability.
It is clear that the question of accountability is a make-or-break issue for the two survivors of abuse on the commission, Collins and Peter Saunders of the United Kingdom, founder of the U.K.’s National Association for People Abused in Childhood. They both said that they would not continue to be part of the commission if the issue of accountability is not resolved in the next year or two, but they expressed total confidence that Pope Francis would act decisively on their proposals.
“Pope Francis has given the commission a very free hand. We’re there to speak our minds, not to be ‘yes men’ for the Vatican,” Saunders said. “There’s a determination in the commission that what happened to myself and so many others like me should never happen again.”
To prove his point, he challenged the pope’s remarks on Feb. 4, when Pope Francis indicated some support for paternal spanking. “We need to speak to the pope about this issue. There is no place in this day and age for inflicting pain” on children, Saunders said. Corporal punishment is, in fact, one of the issues the commission will be 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. “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 said. Both he and Collins were hopeful things will move ahead with speed now that the commission has its full complement of members from all continents.
Cardinal O’Malley hailed as “very important” a letter Pope Francis sent in February to the presidents of the church’s episcopal conferences and to superiors of institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life. He said, “It reveals how important child protection is in this pontificate.”
In his letter, Pope Francis asked the leadership of the Catholic Church “to cooperate” with the new commission “in the arduous task of working for the safety of children.” The pope reflected on his own experience 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.”