Cleaning House

03.23.14

Pope Francis Names His Anti-Abuse Team

Pope Francis named Boston’s Cardinal O’Malley, a psychotherapist, and four women—one of them raped by a priest—to deal with child abuse in the Catholic Church.

Some things are worth the wait. At least that is the hope when it comes to Pope Francis’s surprisingly well-rounded new commission appointed to deal with the ongoing priest sex abuse problem in the global Catholic Church.  The commission, announced Saturday by the Holy See press office, is made up of four women, one of whom is a victim of sex abuse by a priest, and four men – only three of whom are clerics.

The highest-ranking church official on the commission is Cardinal Sean O’Malley who was a front-runner in the papal conclave that finally elected Pope Francis a year ago.

The other clerics are an Argentine priest Pope Francis shepherded through the Jesuit ranks in his home country and a German priest who is also a licensed psychotherapist. According to Vatican spokesperson Father Thomas Rosica, the Argentine, Humberto Miguel Yáñez, is a professor of moral theology who spearheaded the Symposium on the Sex Abuse of Minors two years ago. German Hans Zollner leads the Centre for Child Protection at the Institute of Psychology of the Pontifical Gregorian University.

The more surprising members of the group are the female members. Marie Collins is a married Irish woman who was raped at the age of 13 by a priest. She is an activist for child safety within the Catholic Church and has been vocal about how she was snubbed by her local parish and told to “protect the priest’s good name” when she accused him. Francis also appointed noted French psychologist Catherine Bonnet, who has written extensively about child sex abuse, and Baroness Sheila Hollins from the United Kingdom who is an expert in mental health. 

In what is seen as a nod to the late Pope John Paul II, Francis also named the Polish ambassador to the Holy See, Hanna Suchocka, who is a constitutional law professor and former prime minister of Poland and the winner of several awards for her work on human rights. 

The group’s final member is Italian canon law professor Claudio Papale, who specializes in crimes against morality. The Vatican was quick to point out that Papale, Collins and Hollins are all married. 

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said that the announcement of the new commission, coming after Friday’s highly publicized prayer vigil against organized crime and before the beginning of Easter celebrations was by design.  “Pope Francis has made clear that the Church must hold the protection of minors amongst her highest priorities,” Lombardi said in a statement.  “This initial group is now called to work expeditiously to assist in several tasks, including: participating in the deliberations concerning the Commission’s final structure; describing the scope of its responsibilities; and developing the names of additional candidates, especially from other continents and countries, who can offer service to the Commission.”

The announcement follows stark criticism of Pope Francis for dragging his heels on this extremely controversial issue. Writing in the Boston Globe, Vatican expert John Allen points out an interview Francis gave to an Italian newspaper in which he actually defended the church’s record on abuse, saying the Catholic Church “is perhaps the lone public institution to have moved with transparency and responsibility . . . yet the church is the only one to have been attacked.”

The comment prompted an angry response from victims and a document dump by the group Bishop Accountability, which tracks errant bishops who shuffle predator priests from parish to parish for their protection. The group cited Francis’s record in five alleged abuse cases when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires. According to the database, “he released no documents, no names of accused priests, no tallies of accused priests, no policy for handling abuse, not even an apology to victims.”

David Clohessy, head of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests is also less than optimistic about the panel, saying his group is glad that Marie Collins was appointed, but the problem of clerical child sex abuse doesn’t need further study. “The sad, simple fact is that we are still skeptical,” Clohessy told The Daily Beast by phone. “They don’t need another study panel to figure out how to act. The pope needs to take decisive action today and demote and defrock abusers, not wait for another study group to talk more about it.”