Is Pope Francis’ Abuse Commission A Fail?

Pope Francis’ formation of a committee to advise him on long-term policies to stem clerical sexual abuse was hailed as a major step forward in the Catholic Church’s bungled handling of the abuse crisis. But an internal crisis within the committee—along with the glacial pace of any reforms—is raising questions about the credibility and effectiveness of the committee going forward.

Over the weekend, Peter Saunders, one of two actual survivors of sexual abuse serving on the committee, was booted off by a nearly unanimous vote of the other members. They asserted that the committee’s role is specifically advisory and limited to developing long-term policies to prevent abuse and that Saunders was upsetting the apple cart by advocating for more immediate action and intervention in specific cases.

What seems to have gotten Saunders in hot water is his continued opposition to Pope Francis’ appointment of Bishop Juan Barros to lead the diocese of Osorno, Chile, despite evidence that he covered up sexual abuse spanning two decades. Not only is Barros accused of covering up for Fr. Fernando Karadima, who was the Marcial Maciel of Chile, abusing a series of seminarians over the years with “a powerful cocktail of sexual guilt and secrecy” and using his “pious standing among the elite to conceal [his] depravity.” He was also “cited in the victims’ testimonies as having been present during sexual acts.”

Francis’ appointment of Barros last March unleashed a hailstorm of opposition from the Chilean laity in the form of letters and protests, as well as from priests and other Chilean bishops, who, in a largely unprecedented move, boycotted his turbulent installation:

Members of the congregation yelled at each other across the aisles; protesters with black balloons heckled and shoved the new bishop, who was forced to cut the Mass short. There were doubts later that the Eucharist had been validly celebrated.

The other members of the commission accused Saunders of trying to get it to intervene inappropriately in a specific case—as well as grandstanding to the press—because he was advocating for Juan Carlos Cruz, one of Barros’ victims, to address the committee after the Chilean hierarchy blocked Cruz from formally joining the commission.

Saunders’ actions, however, appear to have been geared toward pointing up the hypocrisy of Francis’ appointment of Barros despite his stated “no tolerance” policy toward abuse. It also highlights Francis’ failure to acknowledge Barros’ complicity in the abuse after the pope was caught on tape last year calling the protests of Barros “dumb” and orchestrated by “leftists”—comments that received notably less coverage than the pontiff’s more anodyne statements.

These continued inconguencies will eventually undermine the committee, good intentions or not. After all, how quickly is Pope Francis likely to enact its only concrete recommendation to date, the creation of a tribunal to punish bishops who allowed abuse to flourish, given that Barros is likely to be one of its first customers?

And if hypocrisy doesn’t doom the effort, it appears that sheer inertia may. The committee is deliberating at the plodding pace of two meetings per year—a schedule, like so many other Vatican activities, that seems more in keeping with a world in which travel took weeks or months and monks had to painstakingly transcribe meeting notes on parchment and deliver them by raven rather than a world of jet airliners, email and Skype.

How many more abuse victims are likely to accumulate (Cruz has called Latin America a continued “playground for pedophiles”) as the commission works on “long-term” solutions? John Allen just reported that the commission, which has been in existence for two years, hasn’t been involved to date in the training on the prevention of sex abuse required of new bishops:

What’s the point of creating a commission to promote best practices, and putting one of the Church’s most credible leaders on the abuse issue, Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, in charge of it, and yet not having it address the new leaders who will have to implement those practices?

And incredibly, based on a presentation of the training that new bishops are receiving, Allen reported that bishops are being told that they “have no duty to report allegations to the police,” which many people assume is ground zero of Pope Francis’ “no tolerance” policy.

For abuse survivors, the move to silence Saunders confirms their fears that the commission was largely a PR tactic. “We never had high hopes for the commission,” David Clohessy of the survivor’s group SNAP told RD. He says church officials “know exactly what should be done in abuse cases” and have “unlimited resources” to do it. “They don’t need advice, they need courage and no commission will give them that,” he said.

What’s particularly heartbreaking, noted Clohessy, is that the person who ended up being punished was a “courageous victim and not a complicit church member.”

The commission says the plans it’s working on to prevent abuse include a website, a “penitential liturgy,” and a request to the pope “to remind all authorities in the church of the importance of responding directly to victims and survivors who approach them.” They didn’t specify, however, what that response should be.

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