13 December 2017, The Tablet

Peter Saunders resigns from Pope's child protection commission

'I thought the Pope was serious about kicking backsides and holding people to account. I believe the Church deserves better on this'

Peter Saunders resigns from Pope's child protection commission

A prominent sexual abuse survivor is resigning his membership of Pope Francis’ child protection commission. 

Peter Saunders, who had taken a leave of absence from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors early last year, is planning to announce he is stepping down from the body at the end of this week in frustration at the slow pace of reform. His departure means there are no longer any abuse survivors on the safeguarding body.

“I’m disappointed that the commission didn’t do what I thought it was set up to achieve,” he told The Tablet. “And there is still a huge amount of work that needs to be done.” 

The British founder and former Chief Executive of NAPAC (National Association for People Abused in Childhood) is due to be in Rome on Friday (15 December) where he will inform Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the president of the commission of his decision. Mr Saunders was appointed to the commission in December 2014 for a three year term of office which expires on Sunday.

While the commission reports directly to the Pope, it is an advisory body whose brief is to make recommendations and it does not comment on ongoing abuse cases. Saunders, however, had always wanted the body to take a more proactive role. He excoriated Australian Cardinal George Pell’s handling of abuse cases and sharply criticised Francis’s decision to appoint Bishop Juan Barros to lead the Diocese of Osorno in Chile. Bishop Barros had been accused of covering up the abuse offences of Fr Fernando Karadima. 

“There was a bit of a misunderstanding about the commission’s role,” Saunders admits. “But I thought the Pope was serious about kicking backsides and holding people to account. I believe the Church deserves better on this.”  

He went on: “I sat down with the Pope for half an hour before I joined the group. He was genuine and he was emotional as I talked. He listened when I said we need to sort our Church out.” Saunders said he later asked the Pope to visit “his commission” in October 2015, something which Francis eventually did almost two years later. 

In February 2016 tensions came to a head when the commission announced it had “decided” that Saunders should take a leave of absence from the group, although he later said he disputed the move.  

Mr Saunders’ resignation follows that of the other abuse victim, Irish laywoman Marie Collins, who stepped down earlier this year complaining about a lack of co-operation from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican body which is a clearing house for cases of priests accused of abuse. There is now talk of restructuring so that victims of abuse will no longer be members of the commission, but have their own panel.

While Francis has faced criticism for the way he has handled the abuse crisis, when he met with his safeguarding body in September he admitted the Church had been slow to deal with the scandal of paedophile priest and pledged never to pardon priests found guilt of abuse.  

The Pope has also accepted all of the commission’s recommendations including the setting up of a tribunal to judge bishops who mishandle cases: this has, however, struggled to get off the ground. More recently the members have argued Francis should review the use of “pontifical secret” imposed on the Church’s internal legal handling of abuse matters meaning everything is handled in strict confidentiality. The safeguarding body argue there are limits to confidentiality given the requirement of bishops - based in countries where there is a functioning criminal justice system - to report abuse to civic authorities. 

Meanwhile, Saunders stressed his departure from the commission does not mean he is disappearing into the shadows. The campaigner is in talks to set up a new body that will hold the Church to account in its handling of abuse cases. He also intends to be in Chile when the Pope travels there next month, raising awareness about Karadima’s victims and the behaviour of Bishop Barros. 

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