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Papal commission on sex abuse targets bishops, seeks to convince skeptics

Peter Saunders of Great Britain is a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Saunders, who was abused by priests as a boy, spoke at a Feb. 7 news conference at the Vatican on Pope Francis' efforts to hold bishops accountable for abusers.
Peter Saunders of Great Britain is a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Saunders, who was abused by priests as a boy, spoke at a Feb. 7 news conference at the Vatican on Pope Francis' efforts to hold bishops accountable for abusers.

RNS photo by David Gibson

Peter Saunders of Great Britain is a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Saunders, who was abused by priests as a boy, spoke at a Feb. 7 news conference at the Vatican on Pope Francis’ efforts to hold bishops accountable for abusers.

VATICAN CITY (RNS) A papal commission on clergy sex abuse is close to giving Pope Francis recommendations on how to punish bishops who shield priests suspected of misconduct, one of several moves announced Saturday (Feb. 7) that are encouraging the two victims on the panel.

But the two victims also said the Vatican has a year or two at most to implement policies with teeth, otherwise they will leave.

Peter Saunders of Great Britain, who was sexually assaulted as a boy by priests at his Catholic school, told a crowded news conference at the Vatican press office that he came to the meeting “with a fair degree of trepidation” that anything significant would result.

But after the initial two days with what he called a “group of quite remarkable and determined people,” including Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, head of the commission, he said “the trepidation has kind of disappeared.”

“I’m actually very, very hopeful that there are going to be some very significant things happening,” especially on disciplining bishops, said Saunders, who heads the London-based National Association for People Abused in Childhood.

But he warned that “if in a year or two there isn’t some firm action on those matters then I don’t think I’ll be sitting here talking to you.”

“We’re not here for lip service. We’re here to protect our children,” said Saunders, who has been outspoken in his demands that the Vatican move quickly.

The other victim on the commission, Marie Collins of Ireland, has been equally vocal in pressing Rome to move quickly and firmly to enact policies and discipline bishops, and she echoed Saunders’ remarks.

“I would expect something to come into place, and if it doesn’t happen in the next year or two, I think not only will Peter not be here, nor will I,” she said.

O’Malley, a close adviser to Francis who has been pushing for bishops to be held accountable, said he is convinced the pope will implement policies with “consequences.”

“There needs to be procedures that will allow these cases to be dealt with in an expeditious way, rather than just having things open-ended,” said O’Malley, who sat with Saunders at the press conference, which was attended by most of the other commission members.

The press conference was one of a rapid series of moves by the Vatican to try to respond with greater speed to the demands that it move quickly on this issue.

Francis issued a strongly-worded letter on Thursday (Feb. 5) telling the world’s bishops to heed the commission’s work and to make protecting children a priority.

At Saturday’s press conference, O’Malley added that he was now calling on the hierarchy in every country to establish a contact person to communicate with the commission and he reiterated the Vatican’s previous demand that each bishops’ conference establish guidelines for reporting abuse. Almost all had done so, he said, but some had not and other policies were inadequate.

O’Malley also said that the commission is developing an educational program on abuse for newly-appointed bishops and members of the Roman Curia, and it is developing materials for a Day of Prayer for all those who have been harmed by sexual abuse.

The commission will also seek researchers to explore the causes of abuse, and said they will look at issues specific to the priesthood, such as celibacy, seminary screening and education.

Marie Collins, center, spoke to reporters after a Feb. 7 news conference at the Vatican. Collins, of Ireland, was sexually assaulted by a priest as a girl. She is a member of Pope Francis' Commission for the Protection of Minors.

RNS photo by David Gibson

Marie Collins, center, spoke to reporters after a Feb. 7 news conference at the Vatican. Collins, of Ireland, was sexually assaulted by a priest as a girl. She is a member of Pope Francis’ Commission for the Protection of Minors.

As for punishing bishops, the most sensitive aspect of the scandal, Collins said that the commission was formulating a range of possible sanctions.

She declined to address them in detail but said that if the measures they are discussing are put in place “it will certainly answer the issue” of accountability of bishops. It is a “very high” priority for the commission, she said.

Collins was one of the original eight panel members Francis appointed last May as he was facing growing criticism for moving quickly on myriad other church reforms while appearing to act much more slowly on fighting clerical abuse, which is a priority for Catholics in the U.S.

That preliminary group met three times, and then last December Francis added nine more members, including Saunders and a range of lay and clergy experts, as well as two nuns. The pontiff also expanded the geographic reach of the commission, which had been largely European.

Noticeably absent from the panel, however, are any victims from the U.S., and especially the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, the leading victims advocacy group.

Saunders said he told the group that SNAP had to be part of the conversation because “they are the biggest and they are the most vociferous” of the victims groups. He said that when he mentioned SNAP to the rest of the commission members “I think there was a tinge of, ‘Oh, God!’” But he said there was no resistance to the idea and he expected the commission to contact SNAP.

SNAP leaders have been highly critical of Francis’ efforts and have dismissed the commission as window dressing.

In an email Saturday, the group’s national director, David Clohessy, said that he wasn’t exactly sitting by the phone.

“We’ve been around 25 years and can count on maybe two hands the number of Catholic officials who have asked to hear from us, so we’re not holding our breath waiting for a call from the Vatican,” Clohessy wrote.

“For years and years, Catholic officials have almost universally shunned survivors or met only with a tiny handful of carefully chosen survivors in choreographed public relations events,” he said. “So the chance that we’ll be have any real chance to talk with or influence the church hierarchy seems slim.”

In a related development on Saturday, Saunders and Collins also said the commission has a working group on corporal punishment and they chided Francis for his remarks earlier in the week that seemed to say it was okay for parents to spank their children.

“One time, I heard a father say, ‘At times I have to hit my children a bit, but never in the face so as not to humiliate them,’” the pope said last Wednesday. “That’s great,” Francis continued. “He had a sense of dignity. He should punish, do the right thing, and then move on.”

The comments prompted an intense debate, and Saunders said that while the remarks “just proved his humanity and his normalcy,” he wanted to have a chance to tell Francis how wrong he was.

“I think we need to talk to the pope about this issue because there are millions of children around the world who are physically beaten on a daily basis,” Saunders said. “It might start out as a light tap but the whole idea of hitting a child is abut inflicting pain … Physical violence has no place in a modern day upbringing.”

YS END GIBSON

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

24 Comments

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  • Well, well, well! After more than a year they’ve finally had their first meeting? Great. Mebbe they’ll emerge, after a few decades of…….uh….deliberation, with a few watered down “recommendations.”

    What a joke. Except nobody’s laughing……except Sean & Co, pleased as punch they’ve managed to kick the can down the road yet again. (SOP from the generic manual for all corrupt multinationals.)

  • It’s extremely disturbing that the sex abuse and cover up within the church hierarchy throughout the world is still going on to this day. Cardinals and bishops are still not removing accused predator clergy, and they are not reporting to law enforcement. Their so called “zero tolerance” policy is not being followed by the bishops who created it. They don’t have to, because there is no punishment to force the bishops to change their ways of protecting their power and the institution rather than protecting innocent children.
    Pope Francis doesn’t need a commission to advise him to fire and demote these church officials because he has shown us by his quick action to fire bishops for the elaborate spending habits. Yet he has not fired one bishop who conceals, enables, and covers up child sex crimes.
    Until there is severe punishment for those church officials nothing changes and children are very much at risk of being sexually abused today.
    Judy Jones, SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests)

  • Did the commission have any ideas for how bishops are supposed to assess uncorroborated accusations made 10, 15, or 30 years after the fact, sometthing public prosecutors seldom have to do??

  • Commenting on the last paragraph: “I think we need to talk to the pope about this issue because there are millions of children around the world who are physically beaten on a daily basis,” Saunders said. “It might start out as a light tap but the whole idea of hitting a child is about inflicting pain … Physical violence has no place in a modern day upbringing.”

    Since this is a “religious” news website, a look at what the Bible says about spanking/discipline should at least be considered…
    Christian parents are told to teach their children from infancy “the training and discipline and the counsel and admonition of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4, The Amplified Bible; 2 Timothy 3:15)
    Of course, children are children, and some are prone to be contrary, even wayward. (Genesis 8:21) What can parents do? “Foolishness is tied up with the heart of a boy; the rod of discipline is what will remove it far from him,” says the Bible. (Proverbs 22:15) Some view this as harsh treatment that is out-of-date. Actually, the Bible is against violence and abuse of any sort. The “rod,” though at times literal, represents parental authority that is administered firmly but lovingly and appropriately out of concern for the children’s eternal welfare.—Hebrews 12:7-11. Spanking a child is in NO WAY the same as daily beatings.

  • It is NEVER okay to strike a child, no matter what your buy-bull says, after scores of translations and agenda-driven changes.

  • “Spanking a child is in NO WAY the same as daily beatings.” My mother had to finally stop my father from hitting us boys too hard with his spanking. I suffered fairly severe lower intestinal problems most of my life which may or may not have been related to the type of beatings we received for fairly innocuous breaches of my father’s will. It’s hard not to want to strike an uppity kid sometimes but we have to hold back because we’re just too big to get away with foul play picking on little people because they can’t fight back. Although some toddlers I read are shooting their parents..

    Pope Francis and all you Catholics who think its possible to create single sex colonies away from prying eyes and not see sexual aberration. The Melkite Catholics can marry and the Episcopalians too. Time to realize God made human beings quite sexual creatures, only outdone by bonobos and porpoises and rabbits..

  • • Dear
    Bishop Scicluna
    My name is Kevin Deignan I was a junior seminarian at Mirfield with Mark Murray
    . Mark has been in contact with you to seek help in closure for himself
    after the sexual abuse he endured at the hands of Romano Nardo , and the
    mental abuse he is still suffering through the inaction of the order. See blog:
    veronafathersmirfield,com
    I am trying to give Mark and his family as much support as they need to get
    through these difficult times. To this end I decided to contact you.
    Mark has battled
    in isolation for over 20 yrs to reach closure for him and his
    family. He has been thwarted at
    every turn . Token gestures have been made
    to placate Mark.
    Protecting the order and giving sanctuary to
    the abuser! .
    Mark
    telephoned you in Malta and you promised to make contact with the Pope about
    his situation and report back – nothing happened. Also, nothing
    happened, when Mark was waiting for a
    promised meeting/conversation with you when you were in Scotland last
    year.
    I have had little faith in the church in
    matters of abuse within it’s ranks . There has been a lack of transparency and
    a reluctance for independent investigation .
    Fr
    Nardo, who is still alive, and protected, in the Comkboni Missionaries
    Mother House in Verona, exploited Mark and many others. Nardo would often
    refer to passages from the bible to justify his sexual abuse: the washing of
    Peter’s feet by Jesus would give him justification for intimate contact . The
    words ” suffer little children who come unto me ” would take on a
    completely different meaning .
    I believe that you can bring pressure on the Comboni Missionaries to have
    honest and meaningful dialogue with Mark.
    His
    family need peace. Mark needs peace.
    Kevin Deignan

    This
    letter was sent to Scicluna 10 months ago – still no reply. Mark Murray —
    contact: [email protected]
    o Father Romano Nardo, who is living in the Comboni Mother House, in Verona, has thwarted extradition by the British police because he is suffering from anxiety and stress — In his position – who would not be!!
    He is still a priest. see web site: http://www.natisone.it/0_archivio_messe/messe2006/messe406.htm

    Not only, is he still a priest – he is/was still around children and still preaching!!!

  • I contacted Bishop Scicluna. My friend contacted Bishop Scicluna about the sexual abuse we suffered at a junior seminary in Mirfield Yorkshire. I was told that he would speak to Pope Francis – that was over 10 months ago – we are still waiting.

  • Talk about bull, look at what has happened to our society since parents have embraced this liberal-progressive-psychology insanity of allowing children to form their own morality.

    It’s fascinating that so many people that take the “don’t ever spank a child” religion, are actually raising Lord Of The Flies children. And the proof? One just needs to visit a modern-day juvenile jail or any mental health program and see the reality staring at them with hate in their unruly eyes.

    There’s a huge difference between abuse via liberalism and good parenting by establishing boundaries.

  • Spare the rod, and spoil the child (Proverbs 13:24), wise proverb! But to the topic, the problem with the sex abuse issue goes way back. In the 1970’s and 1980’s gay men would go to the seminaries to hide. My sister knew many of these men, who later became Catholic priests. Sadly, most all of them are now dead, as they died from AIDS and other diseases. But many are still with us, and continue to hide in the Church, doing damage. So sadly, it is going to take the passing of a generation before it is all rooted out, and the problems drops back to the bare minimum. That said, this issue is throughout Protestantism too, only it is not reported by the leftist media because many of these churches have succumbed to the gay agenda (which the media loves to flaunt, and promote), so these churches remain protected in that regard (and of course many of these churches have been completely taken over by homosexual groups).

  • Holding the bishops, religious superiors and those in charge of juniors for sexual abuse by their subordinates, as proposed by the Vatican Commission, is a sound policy. Even in the civil society, in certain places, Senior Police inspectors are held responsible and punished for the misdemeanors committed by their subordinates. How much more alert and responsible should be those who are placed in authority among God’s people! All success to the Commission.
    John P. S.

  • You are a clown if you think that anyone in the juvenile court system wasn’t beaten (hint: they all were) and that the mental health issues of some individuals isn’t related to their upbringing (hint: it is).

    As a school counselor, I have yet to meet a child who does not meet success who also was never hit/beaten.

    It’s shocking to me that I can’t hit my spouse (who can actually hit me back and defend themselves, and they can leave me), and I can’t hit my dog (who can in all likelihood maul me), but I can hit my child (who has no recourse – cannot defend him/herself and cannot get help since it is viewed as ok and legal). Baffling.

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