Pope Francis and the emerging full-court press

The attack was as unexpected as it was ferocious. In an interview with an Australian news program over the weekend, a British abuse survivor described one of the most senior figures in the Vatican as having "an almost sociopathic" disregard for victims, and called for him to step aside. Peter Saunders, chief executive of the National Association of People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC), described Cardinal George Pell, whom last year Francis named to head his powerful new financial watchdog, as a “serious obstacle” to Francis’s child protection policies, adding that it was “critical” that the cardinal be “moved aside, moved back to Australia.”

What guaranteed Saunders the headlines was his presence on the 17-member Vatican Commission for the Protection of Minors, the body Pope Francis created last year to advise on improving child protection policies in the universal Church. Saunders was named to the commission of experts — headed by two Americans experienced in dealing with the Boston legacy, Cardinal Seán O'Malley and Msgr. Robert Oliver — following a moving half-hour meeting with Pope Francis in July 2014, in which Saunders told the Pope of his experience of abuse at the hands of priests and others at a Jesuit school in London. When Cardinal O'Malley decided to expand the commission in December 2014, Saunders was invited to join, along with Irish survivor Marie Collins.

Saunders, a gentle man who is passionate about cycling — he gave his cycling cap to Pope Francis when they met — said at the time that he was convinced that Pope Francis was sincere in wanting to enable the Church to improve its handling of abuse and to help and heal survivors. As a Catholic who had suffered and who now dedicated himself to assisting adult victims — NAPAC acts as a helpline — he said he wanted to act as a bridge between the Church he loved and the community of abuse survivors who are deeply skeptical of the Church. Yet it was clear even at the time that his role was not going to be easy: In response to an avalanche of criticism he received from abuse survivors for "selling out" and being "used," Saunders said that if he did not see improvements in the Church's handling of abuse, he would resign.

Commentators at the time were quick to spot the dangers for the Pope Francis. "It’s not clear if Francis fully grasped this at the time, but when he named survivors to that group, he was handing them significant control over his reputation," noted John Allen in a March column for Cruxnow.com. "If Collins and Saunders were ever to walk out, saying they’d lost confidence or feeling that they’d been exploited for a PR exercise, it would have a vast media echo."

The bigger danger, however, has turned out to be commission members using their privileged positions to bring pressure on the Pope through the media.

In March, Saunders was one of five commissioners who expressed their shock and incredulity at the Pope's naming of a Chilean bishop linked to a notorious abuser to a new diocese. Their comments followed the chaotic March 21 installation of Juan Barros to the diocese of Osorno, when dozens of protesters disrupted his installation Mass and tried to shove him as he walked down the aisle of the cathedral. The protesters accused Barros of destroying a letter detailing allegations against Father Fernando Karadima, an abuser who is currently serving a canonical sentence of prayer and penance in the Chilean capital, Santiago. But Barros has always denied the allegations, and the Vatican insisted there was no obstacle to Barros's appointment.

At the time, fellow commissioner Marie Collins complained to the Associated Press that the voice of survivors was being ignored, and that the nomination appeared to undermine the Pope's policies of putting child protection first. Both she and Saunders — together with two psychologist members of the Commission — expressed their concerns to Cardinal O'Malley at an impromptu meeting in mid-April in Rome. O'Malley promised to speak to the Pope, and they expressed satisfaction that they had been listened to. Yet Saunders at the time indicated his frustration. "I need an explanation as to why these things are not happening," he told the National Catholic Reporter. "Otherwise, I cannot see any point of me being on the commission."

His explosive interview about Cardinal Pell, Vatican's prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy and a member of the Council of the Nine Cardinals, reflected his mounting frustration at what he sees as the Church's inaction. “I am frustrated at the pace of change," he told Our Sunday Visitor this week. “Why aren’t people like [Bishop] Finn moved out of sight of the people who have been hurt? Why is Barros still in charge of a diocese?" He says he was moved to speak out over Cardinal Pell because of his contact with alleged victims and their families, who accuse the cardinal of failing to deal with an abusive priest 20 years ago in Melbourne. "I am getting daily messages from people saying, "You're on the commission. Can't you speak out about this?" said Saunders, who added that after 20 years of dealing with this issue he has vowed never to stay silent.

The accusations against Cardinal Pell are currently being looked at again by a Royal Commission into historic abuse in Australian institutions. Cardinal Pell has already given evidence on the accusations both to that commission and an earlier Victoria state inquiry in 2013, which found nothing against him. He said he is happy to return to give evidence to the Royal Commission in person, if necessary.

In the case of both Barros and Pell the allegations are not new and are denied. No canonical or civil case exists against Barros, and no accusation against Pell has been stood up by civil authorities in Australia. In the eyes of the law, therefore, they are innocent, and the Pope would be committing an injustice in acting against them on the strength of unproven allegations.

Cardinal Pell's advisors this week pointed out to OSV that the cardinal "has never condoned or protected offenders" that Saunders' interview was full of "false and misleading statements" and that Saunders seemed unaware of Pell's groundbreaking initiative in support of victims which he set up within months of his installation as Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996. The so-called Melbourne Response, said a spokesman, was "supported by the police and civil authorities and at that time had the support of victims' groups." The Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, commenting June 1, told reporters the statements of prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy "must be considered reliable and deserving of respect and attention."

The tension has highlighted, above all, the need to tighten the remit of the Pope's Commission for the Protection of Minors. Both Father Lombardi and Saunders stress that Saunders's comments were made in a personal capacity, not as a commissioner, yet it is only because of his presence on the Commission that Saunders is capable of generating such headlines. Technically, commission members are not supposed to comment on individual cases, yet how can advocates like Saunders and Collins save face with victims' organizations if they do not speak out? The paradox is that Pope Francis, who is notoriously resistant to being pressured — as he demonstrated over the Barros case — has created a powerful platform for precisely that.  

Austen Ivereigh is author of “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope,”(Henry Holt, $30).