Pope Francis established the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors on Dec. 5, 2013, to make clear to the whole world that the safeguarding of children and minors is a top priority of his pontificate. His recent appointment of Msgr. Robert Oliver as secretary of this commission is a welcome signal that this new body will soon begin to function in an effective way.
Msgr. Oliver, a canon lawyer from the Boston Archdiocese, comes to this newly-created post with considerable knowledge and experience. Since January 2013, he has served as promoter of justice at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where he dealt with cases of sexual abuse of minors by priests from around the world. Before that he worked closely with Cardinal Sean O’Malley on abuse cases in Boston. He has now left the C.D.F. for this full-time position, where he heads a new Vatican office.
A Jesuit from the Chicago province, Robert Geisinger, who has been procurator general of the Society of Jesus since 2001, succeeds him at the C.D.F.
“This is a very important step forward in the organization of the office and the work of the commission,” Cardinal O’Malley said after the Vatican announced Oliver’s appointment on Sept. 10. Ms. Marie Collins, a commission member, agreed. “The appointment is a move forward,” she told me. Bill Kilgallon, national director of the New Zealand Bishops’ Conference’s Office for Professional Standards, concurred. “The commission is a great challenge and a great opportunity, and Bob Oliver has the necessary skills and experience to make it work,” he told me by email from Auckland. “Oliver has a real appreciation of the need to listen to survivors of abuse and an understanding of the need to bring the local church in all parts of the world into the work of the commission,” he added.
Msgr. Oliver’s role would appear to be that of chief executive officer of this international body, which will report directly to the pope and advise him. Cardinal O’Malley is expected to be its president.
On March 22, Pope Francis appointed the first eight members to this commission: four women, including a victim of sexual abuse (Marie Collins), and four men with a variety of skills and experiences from eight countries: Argentina, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, England, Poland and the United States. He will soon add other qualified persons to it from Africa, Asia and Latin America, underlining that the sexual abuse of minors by priests is a problem of the universal church and not just of the Anglophone world, as a senior Vatican cardinal once suggested.
The commission has met twice already (May 1-3 and July 6) and discussed its mandate and statutes, possible new members from other geographical areas and how it will proceed. Francis met its members on both occasions and insisted that the commission be “independent.” It will meet again on Oct. 4-5 and should be in a position soon after that to present him with the results of its deliberations.
It will have a broad mandate, but will not deal with individual cases of abuse, as that is the task of the C.D.F., Cardinal O’Malley explained after the May meeting. It will propose initiatives to encourage local responsibility around the world and the mutual sharing of best practices for the protection of all minors, including programs for training, education, formation and responses to abuse.
Speaking for the commission, O’Malley said: “We plan to make specific proposals regarding the importance of emphasizing ways for raising the awareness of all people regarding the tragic consequences of sexual abuse and of the devastating consequences of not listening, not reporting suspicion of abuse, and failing to support victims/survivors and their families.”
The commission has already outlined to the pope the areas it considers important for its future work and, in particular, for ensuring accountability in the church and developing means for effective and transparent protocols and processes. It intends to focus with particular urgency on the accountability of bishops.
“Accountability is for everyone in the church, irrespective of what their status is,” Cardinal O’Malley stated firmly.