On March 22, Pope Francis proved good to his word of several months ago and named the first members of an unprecedented papal commission for child protection.
The eight members are from all over the globe, but four are women and one, Irish lay woman Marie Collins, was also a victim of clergy sexual abuse as a girl in the 1960s. Another notable appointment is Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley, archbishop of Boston.
The pope had announced the new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors back in December and tasked it with advising him on the Church’s efforts to protect children and offer pastoral care for victims of abuse.
In all, there are three members of the clergy and five laypeople, including the four women. All have impressive reputations in areas such as child psychology, childhood development, law and the care of victims of sexual abuse. Though the members are from eight different countries, seven hail from Europe or the United States, where the crisis has been especially severe. Ireland, in particular, is still coming to grips with the dimensions of the abuse. Pope Francis did not appoint a head of the commission, instead apparently wants to provide the members with their own room for decisions.
Getting to work
In a Vatican press conference announcing the new commission, Vatican spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., explained that it is expected to work quickly to set up its final structure, clarify the full scope of its responsibilities and canvass for names of additional candidates, especially from other continents and countries.
Cardinal O’Malley stressed in December that the commission’s primary purpose is pastoral, and it will neither interfere with any of the current authority of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that has jurisdiction over the cases of abuse around the world, nor impinge on the obligation of bishops to oversee the protection of children in their respective dioceses. Lombardi added, “the Commission will take a multi-pronged approach to promoting youth protection, including: education regarding the exploitation of children; discipline of offenders; civil and canonical duties and responsibilities; and the development of best practices as they have emerged in society at large.”
In defending the authentic record of the Church, Lombardi quoted both of Francis’ predecessors, Pope Blessed John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, citing Benedict’s address to the Irish bishops in 2006 at which the pontiff recommitted the Church to safeguard minors and “to establish the truth of what happened in the past, to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent it from occurring again, to ensure that the principles of justice are fully respected and, above all, to bring healing to the victims and to all those affected by these egregious crimes.”
In a recent interview with the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera, Francis readily acknowledged the wounds caused by the scandal even as he noted that the abuse of children is widespread all over the world. And, Francis said, the “Church is perhaps the only public institution to have acted with transparency and responsibility. No other has done more. And the Church is the only one to be attacked.”
While criticized by some pundits for sounding defensive in the interview, Francis is deeply committed to carrying forward the reforms. Lombardi told reporters, “Pope Francis has made clear that the Church must hold the protection of minors amongst her highest priorities.”
The earnestness of the pope is made manifest with his choices for the commission, starting especially with the Dublin-born lay woman Marie Collins, who was herself a victim of sexual abuse and is today an international leader in the effort to protect children and bring justice for survivors. She assisted the Archdiocese of Dublin in setting up its Child Protection Service in 2003, was a founding trustee of an advocacy and counselling support group for abuse survivors and gave her name to the Marie Collins Foundation, a UK charity for helping children who suffer sexual abuse and exploitation via Internet and mobile technologies.
Collins brings the vital perspectives to the commission of a survivor of abuse by the clergy, of the failure of Church authorities to hear properly the voices of victims and the needs of those recovering from the ordeal.
Cardinal O’Malley — already part of the eight-member Council of Cardinals that advises the pope — has a long track record in dealing with the scandal, especially in Boston, and has a strong pastoral touch.
Catherine Bonnet, a French child psychologist, has been a powerful and even prophetic voice in France and across Europe about the effect of sexual abuse and the sexual exploitation of children.
Fr. Humberto Miguel Yáñez, an Argentinian Jesuit, is head of the moral theology department at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He has known Francis for many years and even had him as a professor during studies at a Jesuit Argentine college.
Baroness Sheila Hollins, a former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and currently the president of the British Medical Association, was recently named to the House of Lords and is ranked among Britain’s foremost specialists in child development and disability issues for children.
Claudio Papale, an Italian lay jurist, is a noted expert in canon (or Church) law and moral offenses and teaches at Rome’s Pontifical Urbaniana University.
Hanna Suchocka, prime minister of Poland from 1992-1993 under the presidency of Lech Walesa, is currently Poland’s ambassador to the Holy See and a member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences in the Vatican. She also served as minister of justice and attorney general of Poland and is widely respected in the areas of human rights and international law.
Another Jesuit, German Father Hans Zollner, is academic vice rector of the Gregorian University and head of its Institute of Psychology. He was one of the key figures in organizing a landmark international symposium in early 2012 in Rome focusing on clergy sexual abuse under the title, “Toward Healing and Renewal” and at which Marie Collins was a speaker.
Francis has kept a significant promise to maintain momentum in combatting clergy sexual abuse by filling the first seats of the new commission with serious and credible members. He is also demonstrating a collaborative style and openness to voices from outside the halls of the Vatican, especially those of women. In this new commission, we may be seeing a glimpse of what Francis intends in the full reform of the Roman Curia that is coming later this year.
Matthew Bunson is OSV senior correspondent and co-author of “Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis” (OSV).