- Now the talking really begins
Pope Francis wanted frankness and openness and that is what he got. But there is also the sense that the real debate in the Church about marriage and families is only just starting
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From the editor's desk
For a Pope who has hardly put a step wrong since his election, the issue of child abuse and how the Church handles it was becoming a worrying exception. But now his wisdom in appointing a council of eight cardinals to advise him has come into its own. On the advice of Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich and one of the eight, he has given the issue the priority it deserves by setting up a high-powered commission to move church policy forward. Another of the eight, Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, has been made its chairman. These connections mean the commission will be close to the Pope in person, and therefore less easily smothered in Vatican bureaucracy.
The membership of the commission is even more significant. Five of the eight named are laypeople, four of them women. They include one survivor of clerical sexual abuse, Marie Collins, who leads One in Four, an Irish organisation of abuse survivors (“victims” is not their preferred term). It has sometimes said uncomfortable things about the Church’s poor performance in this area. Also appointed to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors is Baroness (Sheila) Hollins, a life peer and former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, who has specialised in the care of people with learning disabilities. Baroness Hollins has always pressed the Church to put the interests of survivors first.
An even more emphatic intention regarding the work of the commission is revealed by the appointment of the Jesuit Hans Zollner, head of the department of psychology at the Gregorian University, who has emerged in the last few years as one of the world’s leading experts in the field. All the individuals named have a reputation for being uncompromising on the issue of child abuse by the clergy. One of their first duties, after devising their own constitution, will be to draw up universal guidelines applicable throughout the Church.
Fr Zollner said recently that while English-speaking Catholic hierarchies were generally making good progress in child protection, in other parts of the world movement was slow and the issues less well understood. “English-speaking” is mainly code for countries whose legal system is based on common law, which may also explain why there is less difficulty with the proposition that the Church needs to refer allegations of child abuse against priests to the civil authorities, such as the police, rather than deal with them themselves.
This overcomes the suspicion of favouritism when clergy investigate clergy. But there are some countries where the police are not sufficiently trusted. So guidelines may need to be tailored to local circumstances. Some hierarchies are proving slow to act, however, and need pushing harder.
The commission also needs to take responsibility for dealing with church compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The recent bruising encounter between the relevant UN committee and Vatican representatives was not well handled on either side, and must not be allowed to happen again. But there was enough truth in the eventual UN report to deserve a thorough response – and even, in some areas, the modification of church practice.