Commission on sexual abuse to continue work of Pope Benedict

One of the tasks that Pope Francis has inherited from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is continuing the progress of the Church in combatting clergy sexual abuse. The Dec. 5 announcement that he would establish a first-ever papal commission for child protection is an important down payment on that commitment.

The new commission will advise the pontiff on the Church’s efforts to protect children and offer pastoral care for victims of abuse.

Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley, archbishop of Boston and a member of the eight-member Council of Cardinals, and Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the director of the Holy See Press Office, formally announced the creation of the commission at a Vatican news conference.

Father Lombardi said the idea originated during a Dec. 4 meeting between the pope and his Council of Cardinals, which serves as counsel to the pope and which was in Rome Dec. 3-5 for meetings. Francis not only liked the idea but announced the formation of the new commission the next morning.

In addressing the surprised members of the media, Cardinal O’Malley stressed two important aspects of the commission. First, it represents continuity with Pope Benedict’s labors to end clergy sexual abuse and bring genuine reform in that area. Second, the commission will have clearly delineated objectives, including formulating new suggestions for initiatives across the entire Church.

In Benedict’s footsteps

Cardinal O’Malley, whose work in Boston has earned him great credibility in confronting the sexual abuse crisis, noted that the commission will work to further steps in the Church’s labors against clergy sexual abuse that gained momentum under Pope Benedict. Even before becoming pope, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2001 lobbied to have Pope John Paul II assign responsibility to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to oversee all of the cases worldwide and was crucial in the promulgation that same year of the apostolic letter titled Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela (“The Safeguarding of the Sacraments”) that confirmed the CDF’s responsibility for disciplinary review and action regarding violations associated with abuse and that reserved to the CDF the responsibility for reviewing sexual violations “committed by a cleric with a minor below the age of 18 years.”

He also supported the 2002 Dallas Charter by the U.S. bishops and the imposition of the Essential Norms, by which dioceses created safe environments for children, launched a “zero tolerance” policy regarding abuse and worked to improve the formation of priests and the seminary system. The results have been dramatic as the audits by the National Review Board have found that in recent years the numbers of annually reported cases of sexual abuse of minors in the entire Church in the United States have declined to single digits.

Unquestionably, enormous advances have been made in child protection, screening and the way that the Church handles cases both in terms of civil and ecclesiastical law. The task now for the Church is to maintain that vigilance but also to push ahead with providing ongoing pastoral care to the victims and enforcing Pope Benedict’s 2011 directive that all of the bishops’ conferences around the world establish formal guidelines for dealing with clerical sex abuse.

Pastoral orientation

The commission is a significant next step to formalize what is now a worldwide effort at prevention and pastoral care, but it is intended to collaborate rather than dictate. The CDF has a long-established track record over cases in the Church, while the directive is still very much a work in progress. For example, at the start of 2013 nearly one-quarter of the globe’s dioceses were not in compliance.

The commission will help provide clarity, encouragement and practical assistance to the world’s bishops, but Cardinal O’Malley stressed that its primary purpose is pastoral. It will study the effectiveness of present programs for the protection of children and assistance to victims, and it will then consider suggestions for new initiatives “on the part of the Curia, in collaboration with bishops, episcopal conferences, religious superiors and conferences of religious superiors.”

This does not mean that the new commission will interfere with or assume any of the current authority of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith over cases, nor will it supersede the responsibility of local bishops for overseeing the protection of children in their respective dioceses. As Cardinal O’Malley observed, that “competence lies with bishops,” and the Holy See desires only “to be helpful and help to identify best practices.”

He was asked whether the commission would deal with the issue of accountability on the part of bishops in reporting cases of abuse to civil authorities and replied that the question has yet to be addressed.

Francis’ approach

The commission’s planned composition will also reflect its pastoral orientation. It will likely be very international and have 12 members described by Cardinal O’Malley as “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, etc.” The details of both the composition and the authority of the commission will be finalized by Pope Francis in the near future.

But what does this new commission tell us about Pope Francis and how will it impact the lives of average Catholics? Francis has not spoken frequently about the issue, but the commission represents his desire to look at new ways of insuring a safe environment for children and providing genuine healing to victims. It reveals further the willingness of the pope to accept practical advice from his Council of Cardinals — made up of several members who have dealt with the crisis in their own archdioceses.

The commission’s efforts may also be seen on the parish level with improved training for those in pastoral ministry to recognize signs of abuse and in the way that dioceses everywhere cooperate better with civil authorities and embrace new innovations in screening and psychological tests for prospective seminarians.

Matthew Bunson is OSV senior correspondent and co-author of “Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis” (OSV, $12.95).