VATICAN CITY (RNS) An Irish woman who was a victim of sexual abuse as a child is among eight members of a special commission appointed by Pope Francis on Saturday (March 22) to start the long and arduous process of confronting the church's chronic sexual abuse problems.
Francis appointed four women and four men — a mix of clergy and laypeople — from eight different countries to a panel that will advise the church on the best ways to protect children, identify and punish abusers, and train church personnel. Plans for the panel first emerged in December.
The creation of the commission is one of the strongest steps Francis has taken to confront the problem that has severely stained the church's reputation and cost it billions in court settlements and legal fees. The pontiff has called the issue of sexual abuse "the shame of the church" and vowed to take strong steps to confront the issue.
The high-profile names on the commission give some indication of the importance Francis has given to the panel. In addition to Marie Collins, an Irish anti-abuse activist who was molested at age 13 by a priest in the 1960s, the group includes Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston; former Polish prime minister Hanna Suchocka; and British Baroness Sheila Hollins, a noted psychiatrist and a member of the U.K. House of Lords.
"Pope Francis has made it clear that the church must uphold the protection of minors amongst her highest priorities," the Vatican's chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said in a statement.
Calls for action have become louder following condemnation from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in January, with many critics saying the Vatican has acted too timidly in confronting the problems.
Even after the appointment of the committee, victims of abuse said the church should do more, with the U.S.-based Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests saying Francis must still "take strong steps right now to protect kids, expose predators, discipline enablers and uncover cover-ups."
Collins, founder of the victims support organization One in Four, has called for the Vatican to punish church leaders who fail to implement or enforce church rules on pedophile priests, while O'Malley in 2011 famously published a database of Boston-area clergy accused of sexual abuse.
Suchocka is a former minister of justice who was also Poland's ambassador to the Vatican for a dozen years ending in 2013, and Hollins is an ex-president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the British Medical Association.
(Eric J. Lyman writes for USA Today)