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US cardinal: Pope committed to ending ‘scourge of sex abuse’ despite setbacks

Cardinal Sean O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, speaks at the "Safeguarding in homes and schools” conference in Rome on March 22, 2017. RNS photo by Josephine McKenna

ROME (RNS) Despite turmoil on the commission he created to deal with sex abuse in the Catholic Church, Pope Francis is committed “to rooting out the scourge,” Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley said.

O’Malley, who heads the panel, spoke Thursday (March 23) to an international conference on the subject in Rome. He said the church was committed to carrying out the pope’s directive despite recent complaints that the commission’s work was being obstructed by the Vatican itself.

“There is simply no justification in our day for failures to enact concrete safeguarding standards for our children, young men and women, and vulnerable adults,” O’Malley said.

“We are called to reform and renew all the institutions of our church. … And we certainly must address the evil of sexual abuse by priests.”

The conference, organized by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, was titled “Safeguarding in homes and schools.” It included presentations from academics, clergy and experts from South America, Australia and Italy.

O’Malley said that change could not be achieved overnight and that it was critical to make Catholic institutions safe environments.

“Let there be no doubt about it: Pope Francis is thoroughly committed to rooting out the scourge of sex abuse in the church,” he said.

O’Malley and other panel members are still reeling from the resignation of Irish abuse survivor Marie Collins, who accused the Vatican bureaucracy of “shameful” resistance to fighting church sex abuse when she quit the commission on March 1.

Marie Collins, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, speaks during its briefing at the Holy See press office at the Vatican on May 3, 2014. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi

Collins, who was raped at age 13 by a hospital chaplain in Ireland, was the only active abuse survivor on the Vatican panel since British survivor Peter Saunders was sidelined last year for his outspoken criticism. Saunders has not resigned or been formally dismissed.

She said there had been “constant setbacks” from within the Holy See, the Vatican administration, and she later openly clashed with German Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, who heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“There are people in the Vatican who do not want to change or understand the need to change,” Collins said at the time.

Commission member Krysten Winter-Green, a social worker who works with abuse victims and perpetrators in San Diego, Calif., on Thursday said Collins had made an enormous contribution. Winter-Green acknowledged there was “tardiness” from some Vatican departments.

“I think it’s a well-known fact that action tends to take more time in the Vatican,” Winter-Green told Religion News Service. “But at the same time, running parallel with the tardiness of the response from some dicasteries, we continue the work.”

Since becoming pope four years ago, Francis has taken a strong stand on clerical sexual abuse and declared “zero tolerance” for abuse within the church.

But victims’ groups say he has not done enough to hold bishops and priests to account for church abuse scandals that have emerged in Ireland, Germany, the U.S., Australia and other countries in the past 15 years.

Photo courtesy valyag via Wikimedia Commons

A view of St. Peter’s Square from the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Last year Francis approved tougher measures designed to make bishops more accountable for abusers and to mandate bishops’ removal if they’re found to be “negligent.”

“I have the utmost faith and confidence in Pope Francis and his tremendous passion and drive for the protection of children,” Winter-Green said.

Winter-Green, who works as a consultant to Catholic and other religious institutions in California, said the impact of sexual abuse was profound and not only affected the victims, but their families and their communities.

“The pain and suffering is indescribable,” she said. “They are part of a family, a community. They have brothers, sisters, parents, uncles, aunts and grandparents. Whole families, whole communities are affected.”

Winter-Green said the panel was committed to protecting children and wiping out sexual abuse in the church.

About the author

Josephine McKenna

Josephine McKenna has more than 30 years' experience in print, broadcast and interactive media. Based in Rome since 2007, she covered the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and election of Pope Francis and canonizations of their predecessors. Now she covers all things Vatican for RNS.

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