On February 17, Pope Francis renewed the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in an apparent effort to continue addressing widespread sexual abuse in the Catholic church. However, the renewal comes amid criticism that he and the Vatican haven’t done enough to protect abuse survivors.
The panel, an advisory body established in 2014 in response to similar criticism, lay dormant for two months after its three-year mandate expired in December. Reactivation was delayed, according to the pope, due to extensive background checks. But advocates for abuse survivors point to fresh complaints about the pope’s commitment to clergy abuse, amassed in the controversy around Chilean Bishop Juan Barros.
Church to Renew Efforts in Abuse Prevention
According to the Vatican’s statement, the panel will now have 17 members: non-cleric academics, priests, nuns and several sexual abuse survivors who have chosen not to be identified. Nine new members will join the eight who were reappointed. Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley of Boston was also reappointed as the panel’s leader.
“The Holy Father has ensured continuity in the work of our commission, which is to assist local churches throughout the world in their efforts to safeguard all children, young people, and vulnerable adults from harm,” Cardinal O’Malley said.
The group will begin its work in April by hearing the testimony of sexual abuse survivors. The pope will also continue meeting with survivors “several times a month,” according to a Vatican spokesman, “to help them heal the grave wounds caused by the abuses they suffered.”
Following recent events, it’s safe to say those wounds have reopened.
Dismissal of Abuse Sparks Outrage in Chile
The Vatican’s announcement came the same day questioning began in the case against Bishop Barros, who was accused of witnessing and covering up sexual abuse by another priest. Criticism against Pope Francis flared after a January visit to Chile, where he waved these accusations off.
“The day I see proof against Bishop Barros, then I will talk,” he told a Chilean reporter, placing the burden of proof on survivors themselves. “There is not a single piece of evidence against him. It is all slander. Is that clear?”
Even the cardinalate had a retort to the pope’s comment. In a reproachful statement, Cardinal O’Malley said refusal to accept survivors’ histories without proof has caused them “great pain.”
One Vatican panel member was nonetheless determined enough to come forward with evidence: an eight-page letter written by an accuser, Juan Carlos Cruz, who was abused as a teenager by Barros’ mentor, Rev. Fernando Karadima. Marie Collins, a sexual abuse survivor who resigned from the Pontifical Commission in frustration at its lack of action, passed the letter to the pope through Cardinal O’Malley.
“We’ve heard nothing but silence from the Vatican since that letter was made public,” Collins said. Spokesmen for O’Malley and the Vatican declined to comment. Rev. Karadima denies all claims to this day. On Pope Francis’ part, invitations to meet with Cruz and Barros’s accusers have so far been declined.
Survivors Still Hope to Be Heard
Pope Francis may have redeemed himself by ordering investigations into the Barros case and appointing former sexual abuse investigator Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta to take testimony from survivors. He also later apologized to survivors for his testy defense of Barros.
Sadly, it is not unusual for the Catholic church to deny sexual abuse claims. Countless young people throughout history have been forced to keep quiet after suffering emotional, physical and spiritual abuse by clergymen they once trusted. Cruz and other survivors with the courage to speak out wouldn’t have need to had the Vatican done more to protect them.
The never-ending trauma for clergy abuse survivors is two-fold: Living with excruciating memories of the past while trying to tolerate setbacks from the only authority that can make a real difference. In statements, the Vatican only names its goal to instill “abuse prevention and protection into the life and action of local churches” its “greatest challenge.”
This commission’s revival marked the Vatican’s latest measure to deflect criticism for inaction toward sexual abuse. Whether or not the pope pushed the revival just to save face, we can only speculate. But abuse survivors await serious attention to wounds that have remained unhealed for far too long.