ROME (AP) — Pope Francis’ top adviser on sex abuse insisted Thursday that the pontiff is “thoroughly committed” to rooting out abuse from the church but acknowledged his advisory commission must regroup following the clamorous resignation of Irish survivor Marie Collins.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley told a seminar on protecting children that the commission has always maintained a “victims first” priority and that keeping survivors involved was a crucial agenda item going into the group’s plenary meeting starting Friday.
The key question facing the commission, he said, is “how can victims and survivors continue to have a powerful voice in our work and help guide us?”
Collins resigned March 1 citing the “unacceptable” lack of cooperation from the Vatican’s doctrine office in implementing the commission’s proposals. Her departure dealt a blow to the commission’s credibility, leaving it without any survivor participation, and again raised questions about the Vatican’s commitment to fighting abuse, caring for survivors and accepting expertise from outside clerical circles.
Several Vatican cardinals attended the conference, including the Vatican No. 2, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and the heads of congregations that deal with bishops, religious orders and the laity — a clear sign of support for the commission and its work. Notably absent was Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, whose office is responsible for processing abuse cases and who was the main object of Collins’ criticism.
Parolin arrived at the conference to hear a devastating assessment of the effect that abuse has had on the credibility of the Catholic Church in Australia, where a royal commission investigation found 7 percent of Catholic priests had been accused of molesting some 4,444 children between 1980 and 2015.
“Sure, it may happen in other institutions. Sure it happens in families. But the fact that it happened in the Catholic Church says something about the corruption of the Catholic Church,” said Francis Sullivan, head of the Australian bishops’ council that is coordinating the church’s response to the royal commission inquiry. “We have to come to terms with that cancer.”
In an interview on the sidelines of the conference, O’Malley said he hoped the public criticisms leveled by Collins might help it as it tries to work more closely with the key office handling abuse, Mueller’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or CDF.
“Obviously a lot needs to be done to help the CDF to have the resources and the procedures and the real commitment to deal with those other problems that are out there,” beyond canonical procedures, O’Malley said.
In addition to processing cases, the congregation helps dioceses establish guidelines for handling abuse cases. The commission came up with its own, broader set of guidelines that includes prevention, education and safeguarding elements but the congregation to date hasn’t incorporated the commission’s proposals.
“Obviously it’s important that the CDF, with the authority that they have, are the ones who have mandated the guidelines in the countries,” O’Malley said. “But now our commission is better placed to be able to help critique and strengthen those guidelines, particularly in the area of prevention where they don’t have enough teeth.”
Francis won praise for creating the commission in 2014 and for voicing “zero tolerance” for pedophiles. But he has also earned criticism for some problematic appointments, for scrapping a proposed tribunal to judge negligent bishops and for reducing penalties against a handful of abusers.
O’Malley said there is an active debate in the church as to whether defrocking abusers, or sanctioning them instead to a lifetime of penance and prayer, is the best punishment. Often elderly or sick priests are given “penance and prayer” sanctions, since they are less of an immediate threat to children.
Younger priests, however, pose a greater challenge and there have been several cases of bishops who failed to adequately monitor abusers under their charge.
“The whole area of monitoring is one where we realize that the church has not been able to do a good job up until now,” O’Malley said. “It’s one of the areas of concern.”
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