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Robert Mickens in Rome and Christa Pongratz-Lippitt in Vienna
Pope Francis has agreed to a proposal from his eight-member Council of Cardinals (C8) and will establish a Vatican commission focusing on the protection of minors and pastoral care for those sexually abused by church personnel.
The Pope’s decision to set up the new commission was announced on 5 December at the end of a three-day gathering of the C8, a group Francis formed last April to advise him on reforming the Roman Curia and governing the universal Church. It appeared to be the first concrete action in any area that the Pope has directly taken on the council’s advice.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, the C8 member that announced the news to the media, said the yet-to-be-formed commission would “study programmes currently in place for the protection of children” and suggest “new initiatives” the Curia might take in collaboration with local Churches and religious orders.
The Capuchin cardinal said that the commission would also “indicate the names of persons suited to the systematic implementation of these new initiatives”. He said these would include laity, clergy and Religious with expertise in the areas of “the safety of children, relations with victims, mental health, application of the law” and so forth. According to Cardinal O’Malley, Pope Francis is expected to issue a document “shortly” that will spell out the exact competence of the commission and the names of its members.
Abuse survivor and campaigner Marie Collins from Dublin, who addressed a symposium on abuse in Rome in 2012, said the new commission must have the powers to make bishops accountable.
“What is the point of this commission enacting new safeguarding policies or healing procedures if those charged with their implementation are in a position to ignore them without sanction? “To achieve credibility the Church must ensure accountability. Without it there is no guarantee the mistakes of the past will not continue into the future and more innocents suffer,” wrote Ms Collins in a blog for The Tablet website.
According to Fr Hans Zollner SJ, vice rector of Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University, which has had a particular focus on abuse in recent years, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich was the driving force behind the new commission. “Together with Cardinal O’Malley, Marx was the keenest and most resolute supporter of the idea in the circle of eight cardinals,” Fr Zollner told the German section of Vatican Radio.
Fr Zollner, who is in regular contact with experts on clerical sexual abuse the world over and who chaired the organising committee for the clerical-abuse symposium held at the Gregorian in 2012, said it had become clear that many bishops’ conferences and individual bishops had still not adopted the guidelines from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) on abuse prevention. The new commission would have to have the necessary scope to intervene and enforce the guidelines.
“One will have to discuss what the new commission can do if a bishops’ conference or a diocese does not stick to the rules. One of the standard questions in recent years has been: What kind of co-responsibility do church representatives have when priests, Religious or church employees sexually abuse minors?” Fr Zollner said and added, “We need enforcement competences including legal instruments to enforce church regulations – if necessary against the opposition of a bishop who refuses to obey them.”
The new commission would supplement the work of the CDF, which lacked the authority and the personnel to deal with all the questions that arose, such as how proper justice could be done for victims, how church hearings could be speeded up and what was to be done with convicted priests, Fr Zollner explained.
Archbishop John Nienstedt of St Paul, Minnesota, released the names of 29 priests against whom accusations of child sex abuse have been deemed “credible” and “substantiated”, and an additional four priests facing charges that have not been substantiated. Archbishop Nienstedt has been facing pressure to resign since a former chancellor of the archdiocese, Jennifer Haselberger, stood down in April. Ms Haselberger charged that Archbishop Nienstedt and other archdiocesan officials were not following church norms for the protection of children.