Pope Francis Announces Commission To Address Sex Abuse Cases

For victims who silently suffered child abuse at the hands of priests, nothing the Vatican does will ever be quite enough. But a new commission ordered by Pope Francis could be a solid step in the right direction.

On Thursday, Pope Francis agreed to appoint a special ad-hoc “commission for the protection of minors” to address alleged and proven sex abuse by Catholic priests. The commission was suggested by a council of eight cardinals, tasked with advising the pope on church reform, who are meeting in Rome this week.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston—a city that was once the epicenter of the sex-abuse coverup scandal—briefed reporters after the council met with the pope. “Specifically, the commission will study present programs in place for the protection of children; formulate suggestions for new initiatives on the part of the Curia, in collaboration with bishops, bishops, Episcopal conferences, religious superiors and conferences of religious superiors; and indicate the names of persons suited to the systematic implementation of these new initiatives, including laypersons, religious and priests with responsibilities for the safety of children, in relations with the victims, in mental health, in the application of the law, and so forth.”

Taken at face value, that would imply that the pope wants to hear from not just those inside the church hierarchy, but perhaps he would also call in advisors from outside the church to help deal with the problem. O’Malley said that the commission could be made of up priests, men and women religious, including nuns, and laypeople. Roping in secular entities, including law enforcement officials, has always topped the wishlist of victims groups, who feel that clerical child abuse is often “dealt with” in secret out of the long arm of the law. No other entity that deals with minors, including education systems, groups like Boy Scouts, or sports organizations, have the same umbrella protection that the Catholic church provides its clergy when it comes to child sex abuse.

According to O’Malley, the far-reaching commission would focus on developing guidelines and norms for the protection of children, including offering up strategies for anyone who deals with minors, including “catechists.” He also said the new commission would focus on “proof of suitability for priestly ministry, and screening and checking of previous offenses," the absence of which has long a complaint by victims’ groups.

This is the first time the church has shown willingness to actively cooperate with those outside the Catholic diocese to deal with the problem. O’Malley says the commission would establish a policy that would allow better “co-operation with the civil authorities, reporting of crimes, compliance with civil law, communications regarding clergy declared guilty.” Whether that means a bishop who has been dealt a complaint about sexual abuse by one of his priests would actually call the cops is essentially at the crux of the problem. In the past, the bishops have dealt with such complaints by removing or moving the offending priest away. The goal of the new commission implies that bishops might be given different guidance to get local authorities involved.

The new commission will also apparently focus on “protocols for environmental safety codes of professional conduct” and “collaboration with experts in the research and development of the prevention of abuse of minors, psychology, sociology, legal sciences.”

The commission’s duties would certainly seem to be in line with what victims like David Clohessy, head of SNAP—Survivors Network of those Abused By Priests, but the group is skeptical and not yet ready to endorse the new commission. “This move is more of the same. Rather than show courage and creativity, top Catholic officials are repeating the same self-serving patterns of the past that have proven to be effective public relations but ineffective prevention and healing steps,” Clohessy said in a statement forwarded to The Daily Beast. “Like his predecessors, the pope knows precisely what must be done to protect kids and expose the truth. Like his predecessors, he lacks the strength of character to do it.”

Clohessy points to examples of where the Vatican has fallen short of promises to act against the abuse, including evidence that abuse is still being reported in diocese across the world. This week, the archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul announced they would out 29 priests who had been “credibly accused of sexually abusing minors” after a judge ordered them to disclose the abusers’ identities to help protect children who might have been in contact with them.

On Tuesday, the Vatican refused to provide information on their own internal investigations into child sex abuse to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child which is investigating the Vatican ahead of a panel set for January 2014 when the Vatican will have to face questions or risk sanctions. In July the Vatican was sent a “list of issues” they were meant to submit this week. The UN asked for clarification on dozens of issues including questions like: “In light of the recognition by the Holy See of sexual violence against children committed by members of the clergy, brothers and nuns in numerous countries around the world, and given the scale of the abuses, please provide detailed information on all cases of child sexual abuse committed by members of the clergy, brothers and nuns brought to the attention of the Holy See over the reporting period.” The refusal to submit to the UN’s request has only fueled fire that the Vatican under popular Pope Francis is conducting business as usual.

Now it will be up to the Vatican to prove the naysayers wrong. O’Malley contends that this commission will do just that, but Clohessy, himself a victim of torturous abuse by a priest, won’t believe it until he sees it in action. “Another commission surveying bishops and recommending policies is meaningless. It’s like offering a band aid to an advanced cancer patient,” Clohessy said. “These crimes and cover ups have gone on for centuries quietly and decades publicly. Only decisive action helps, not more studies and committees and promises.”