By ELISABETTA POVOLEDO, ALAN COWELL and RICK GLADSTONE (The New York Times)
December 5, 2013
VATICAN CITY — In his first concrete step to address the clerical sexual-abuse problem in the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis will establish a commission to advise him on protecting children from pedophile priests and on how to counsel victims, the Vatican said Thursday.
The announcement was a forthright acknowledgment by the Vatican of the enduring problem of abusive priests, and fit with Francis’ pattern of willingness to set a new tone in the governance of the church nine months into his tenure.
Whether the new commission portends a significant change in how the Vatican deals with abusive priests and their protectors remains to be seen, experts on the church said. Yet the timing of the announcement, two days after a United Nations panel criticized the Vatican over its handling of abuse cases, suggested that the pope and his closest advisers wanted to at least be seen as tackling the issue with greater firmness.
Soon after he became pope, Francis directed the Vatican last April to act decisively on abuse cases and punish pedophile priests, in a meeting with subordinates at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church’s enforcement arm. But he had said little about the sexual abuse problem since.
“Francis is great on a lot of stuff but hasn’t really done anything about sex abuse cases,” said John L. Allen Jr., the senior correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter, an American weekly, who frequently reports from the Vatican.
“A lot of people most focused on this issue said that Francis needs to game up,” Mr. Allen said in a telephone interview. “So the P.R. thing to say was, ‘We’re doing something.’ ”
The announcement elicited a mixed reaction, reflecting some skepticism, particularly among victims and their advocates, over whether a new commission would be more than cosmetic.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the coordinating body of bishops in the United States, called the pope’s move “a most welcome initiative.” In a statement, the group said: “Abuse of minors is a sin and a crime, and every step must be taken to eradicate this blight. Such abuse is especially grave when committed by anyone in ministry in our church.”
At the same time, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, the leading United States-based support group for clergy abuse victims, called the news a disappointment that reflected badly on the new pope. David Clohessy, executive director of the group, said the announcement suggested that the Vatican remained strongly resistant to making sexually abusive members of the clergy and their church protectors accountable to external criminal prosecution.
“A new church panel is the last thing that kids need,” Mr. Clohessy said in a telephone interview. “Church officials have mountains of information about those who have committed and those who are concealing horrible child sex crimes and cover-ups. They just have to give that information to the police.”
BishopAccountability.org, an organization that has amassed an enormous collection of documents on the abuse problem in the church, gave a cautious welcome to the announcement, but also expressed skepticism.
“It’s good that the Vatican will be giving this terrible problem high-level and focused attention,” Anne Barrett Doyle, the group’s co-director, said in a statement. “But we are concerned that the commission will be toothless and off-target.”
The suggestion to establish a commission came from the group of eight cardinals brought together by the pope a month after his election in March to advise him on reforming the Vatican’s labyrinthine bureaucracy.
Precisely who will serve on the advisory commission and what authority it will have remained unclear. But Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the only American among the eight cardinals advising the pope, said it would include priests, men and women from religious orders and laypeople with expertise in safeguarding children, and that it would offer advice on pastoral care rather than judicial functions. That seemed to signal that it would not make proposals for exposing or punishing abusive clerics.
The commission will have a broad mandate including the development of “norms, procedures and strategies for the protection of children and the prevention of abuse of minors,” the Vatican said in a statement.
It could also develop guidelines for cooperating with civil authorities, reporting of crimes and compliance with civil law, the Vatican said. Procedures for “screening and checking of previous offenses” and “the state of action of requests for psychiatric evaluation” could also be examined.
“Up to now, there’s been so much focus on the judicial parts of this, but the pastoral response of the church is very, very important, and the Holy Father is concerned about that,” Cardinal O’Malley said at a news conference at the Vatican. “And so we feel as though having the advantage of a commission of experts that would be able to study some of these issues and bring concrete recommendations for the Holy Father and the Holy See will be very important.”
The cardinal’s diocese in Boston was the center of the sexual abuse scandal in the United States a decade ago. The cardinal also is known to be among the most proactive advisers to Francis in pushing to address the abuse issue more assertively.
While the commission’s powers, precise composition and influence are not yet known, Mr. Allen said, Cardinal O’Malley’s role “suggested that it’s substantive.”
Other Vatican experts expressed caution. John Thavis, the author of “The Vatican Diaries,” a best-selling book about how the Vatican works, said the commission was a “positive step.” But he expressed doubt that it would “revolutionize anything” in how the church deals with sexual abuse cases.
“This is an advisory commission to the pope, and doesn’t have any authority on how its recommendations would be implemented or on issues of how bishops report to local civil authorities,” he said.
This week, the Vatican sidestepped a request from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child for information about its handling of abuse cases, saying that the responsibility for such cases rested with individual bishops.
Sexual abuse of children has haunted the Vatican, particularly during the eight-year papacy of Benedict XVI, Francis’ predecessor, who often seemed overwhelmed by scandals involving cover-ups of pedophilia and other forms of sexual abuse that undermined the church’s moral authority and stature.
In June 2010, Benedict addressed the abuse issue in public, telling priests in St. Peter’s Square, “We, too, insistently beg forgiveness from God and from the persons involved, while promising to do everything possible to ensure that such abuse will never occur again.” In 2012, he approved a symposium to discuss ways of preventing the sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy.
An aloof theologian, Benedict resigned in February, the first pope to relinquish the Roman Catholic Church’s highest office voluntarily in nearly 600 years. Francis has sought to project a more down-to-earth image, blending personal humility with a readiness to embrace new thinking.
Even as Cardinal O’Malley announced the commission, parts of the church were bracing for new disclosures. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis told its priests that a new report would illuminate the prevalence of abuse in its parishes.
Cardinal O’Malley said the new advisory commission would study existing measures and proposals for “new initiatives” to safeguard children, as well as guidelines for the personal conduct of priests and the creation of safe environments to limit the likelihood of abuse.
Under Benedict, the Vatican asked the bishops of every country to produce a policy on handling abuse cases, and to submit the policies to the Vatican for approval. But not all of them did so; bishops in some parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America said they had little experience or expertise on the issue. By contrast, the church has been calling bishops and officials from English-speaking countries to meetings in Rome for decades to discuss the abuse problem and share their best practices.
The new emphasis on pastoral care for abuse victims may present challenges for the Vatican. Many victims of abuse by priests say they want nothing more to do with the church, and would not feel comfortable receiving counsel or spiritual care from a professional affiliated with the church.
Elisabetta Povoledo reported from Vatican City, Alan Cowell from London, and Rick Gladstone from New York. Laurie Goodstein contributed reporting from Salt Lake City.