Pope forms panel on sex abuse, but advocacy group calls it ‘meaningless’

Vatican says new commission will study current programs to protect children, but some say it’s no more than ‘fluff’

Cardinal Sean O'Malley said on Thursday that Pope Francis, pictured, has decided to create the committee "for the protection of children."
Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Pope Francis is assembling a panel of experts to advise him on combatting sex abuse in the clergy, it was announced Thursday.

The move would help protect children from pedophiles and better screen would-be priests, according to the Vatican. But it was dismissed as a "public relations stunt" by a leading victim advocacy group, who added that it would do little to shield young people from predatory priests.

Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston, announced the creation of the commission Thursday at the conclusion of a meeting between Francis and his eight cardinal advisers in Vatican City who are helping him govern the church and reform the Vatican bureaucracy. Boston was the epicenter of the 2002 clerical sexual abuse scandal in the U.S.

O'Malley told reporters that the commission, made up of international lay and religious experts on sex abuse, would study current programs to protect children, better screen priests, train church personnel and suggest new initiatives to implement inside the Vatican and around the world.

"The Holy Father has decided to constitute a committee for the protection of children," O'Malley said at a press conference, adding that the make-up of the new body would be announced "in the near future."

However, it remains unclear if the experts will take up one of the core issues behind the Roman Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal: how to make bishops who shelter abusive priests accountable.

Just more of the same?

Barbara Blaine, the president and founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said despite the announcement, the move seemed "to be one more time that church officials are basically giving a lot of fluff, but not any substantive action." 

"We believe that actions speak louder than words. What the Vatican is doing continues the same tried responses from previous popes," Blaine told Al Jazeera. 

Blaine said setting up a commission and potentially new policies was "meaningless," rather, she said, church officials should turn over information and evidence about sex abuse scandals to police if they "really wanted to make a difference."

"Bottom line, church officials by and large have shown no commitment to protecting children," Blaine said. 

Advocates for victims of clerical abuse have long denounced the Vatican's refusal to sanction bishops who shielded abusive priests and moved them from parish to parish rather than report them to police.

That practice, coupled with the church's culture of secrecy and fear of scandal, enabled pedophiles to continue molesting children for decades while the Vatican turned a blind eye.

"Quite frankly that's something that the church needs to address," O'Malley said, when asked if the commission would take up the issue. "I'm not sure whether it will be this commission or the CDF (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) or the Congregation for Bishops."

Unanswered questions

The commission was announced just days after the Vatican submitted its responses to a U.N. committee monitoring its implementation of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Vatican dodged many of the committee's questions about sex abuse by arguing that it's up to bishops and dioceses to implement programs to protect children, not the Holy See.

Asked about the seeming contradiction, O'Malley said competence for such issues still lies with local church leaders.

"The Holy See will try and help to identify best practices," he said. "Certainly we hope that the Holy See will be able to model what those best practices are as a way of helping other dioceses and bishops conferences to have a response that is truly adequate and pastoral."

But Blaine said that the pope needs to punish any bishop who shields church officials convicted of crimes, some of whom may have fled to another jurisdiction to avoid prosecution. 

"No other secular not-for-profit in the world allows anyone who covers up sex crimes to continue in their jobs. But in the church, we see time and time again those who conceal sex crimes, get to keep jobs and (even get) promoted," Blaine said. 

"If (the pope) were to order (and) make clear that no Catholic, religious house or institution, is permitted to provide hospitality, sanctuary, housing or jobs for any fugitives, that would immediately make children safer." 

Wire services. Philip J. Victor contributed to this report. 

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