VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis’ sex abuse commission has scored a victory within the Vatican: Members have been invited to address Vatican congregations and a training course for new bishops, suggesting that the Holy See now considers child protection programs to be an important responsibility for church leaders.
Commission members praised the development as a breakthrough given that bishops have long been accused of covering up for abusers by moving pedophile priests from parish to parish rather than reporting them to police. For decades, the Vatican too turned a blind eye and failed to take action against problem priests or their bishop enablers.
Commission members have already addressed the Vatican congregations for priests and religious orders and the Vatican’s diplomatic school. This week, members including Irish abuse survivor Marie Collins and the Vatican’s former sex-crimes prosecutor, Bishop Charles Scicluna, will address the new bishops’ course, which the Vatican hosts for all bishops named in the previous year to teach them how to run their dioceses.
The presentations come after the Vatican was embarrassed last year when, during the annual “baby bishops” course, a French priest told bishops they don’t need to report priests suspected of raping or molesting children to civil authorities.
He said it was up to the victims or their parents to do so.
The commission head, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, swiftly corrected him saying bishops have an “ethical and moral” obligation to report.
The Rev. Hans Zollner, a commission member and head of the Center for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University, will join Scicluna in addressing new bishops from “mission” territories such as Africa and Asia, where church leaders have often denied abuse was really a problem.
In an interview, Zollner said the message he wanted to bring to the new bishops is “The one very important thing you can do as a bishop in this issue is to listen to survivors, to sit down with them, to give them your time, to open your ears and to open your heart, to welcome them,” Zollner said. “This is the single most important thing a bishop can do so that the healing process may somehow go on.”
Commission member Baroness Sheila Hollins praised the developments as evidence the Vatican now considers educating even its own leaders about the abuse crisis to be a priority. In addition, she said, it shows the commission is now viewed as a resource.
Previously, the commission’s work has been met with some skepticism within the Vatican, where some prelates still consider the tough approach against abuse adopted by Francis and his predecessor, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, to be excessive.
“I don’t believe it is because they were resistant,” Hollins said of the Vatican’s initial reaction. “I think it’s because they didn’t know.”
Francis announced the commission in 2013 as an advisory panel to educate the church at large about best practices to protect children and keep pedophiles out of the priesthood. It was slow to get off the ground and find its way, especially after Francis himself alarmed members by appointing a Chilean bishop accused of covering up for the country’s most notorious pedophile.
But members have praised the pope’s decision earlier this year to issue guidelines for removing bishops accused of cover-up. He scrapped a proposed tribunal and instead took matters in hand, and even expanded the scope to include superiors of religious orders, not just bishops.
“In terms of implementation, it remains to be seen,” commission member Krysten Winter-Green said in an interview. “But I believe that Pope Francis is very, very concerned about this. There is no question about this.”
Francis has recently accepted a handful of resignations offered by bishops before they turned age 75, the normal retirement age for bishops, suggesting something of a post-summer housecleaning. But the Vatican as of Sept. 1 stopped publishing whether they stepped down for age or for some other “grave” reasons that made them unfit for office.
Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield