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Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley unveils Vatican effort to prevent abuse

Cardinal Sean O’Malley said the commission would “advise the Holy Father about the protection of children and pastoral care of victims of abuse.”

Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press

Cardinal Sean O’Malley said the commission would “advise the Holy Father about the protection of children and pastoral care of victims of abuse.”

Almost 12 years after the clergy sexual abuse crisis exploded in Boston, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley announced Thursday the creation of a Vatican commission on protecting children from abuse, marking the Catholic Church’s first comprehensive effort to address the crisis globally.

O’Malley, speaking in Rome after a meeting of the eight-cardinal council that advises Pope Francis on church governance reform, said the new commission would advise the pope about the protection of children and the pastoral care of victims of abuse.

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The new panel represents Pope Francis’s first substantive attempt to confront the central issue facing the church in recent years. Its establishment also came days after the church refused a UN committee’s request for detailed information about sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy and religious orders.

Some church observers praised the new commission, calling it long overdue.

“It reflects that Pope Francis is determined to get to the root causes of the clergy sexual abuse scandal and to prevent it from ever happening again,” said Thomas Groome, a theologian and chairman of the department of religious education and pastoral ministry at Boston College.

But others said the church lacks the credibility necessary to conduct thorough analysis and make real reforms.

“They need to set up a truly independent panel to investigate the matter,” said Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston lawyer who has represented hundreds of clergy abuse victims.

‘In undertaking reforms, the Holy See would try to be helpful and try to identify best practices.’

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O’Malley, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston, is the only American on the Council of Cardinals, and he has gained an international reputation for cleaning up abuse crises in troubled US dioceses. He said the council proposed the idea, and the pope accepted it Thursday morning.

The clergy sexual abuse commission’s wide-ranging agenda, O’Malley said, includes examining guidelines for protecting children and preventing abuse, which differ country to country. It will also review the screening of candidates for the priesthood; the training of priests and other church staff who work with children, the extent to which the church is cooperating with civil authorities; and supervision and rehabilitation of abusive priests.

Details on the composition of the panel will be disclosed soon, the Vatican said.

O’Malley also said the panel would place special focus on the church’s pastoral response to victims.

“Up till now, there has been so much focus on the judicial parts of this, but the pastoral response is very, very important, and the Holy Father is concerned about that,” said O’Malley. “We feel as though having the advantage of a commission of experts that will be able to study some of these issues and bring concrete recommendations for the Holy Father and for the Holy See will be very important.”

The abuse crisis has been international in scope, and the church has spent an estimated $2 billion to $3 billion in settling abuse cases in the United States alone.

Groome, the Boston College theologian, said the most significant contributions the commission could make would be to implement on a global basis the sexual abuse protocols that the US bishops have adopted for the American church, and to make sure bishops are held accountable for following them.

“The great task is how to prevent it from happening again anywhere in the world,” Groome said. “But in trying to prevent it, they have to ask two deeper questions: Why did it happen so frequently in the first place, and why was it allowed to continue happening?”

Critics were skeptical that the panel would be effective. Terence McKiernan — president of Bishop Accountability, a watchdog on clergy abuse and an online archive of the crisis — said that the commission’s to-do list is too long. But he also said the panel lacks a clear mandate to figure out how the church could hold bishops accountable if they mishandle abuse complaints.

Bishops in Philadelphia and Kansas City failed to enforce US church laws for handling abuse cases in recent years. The Kansas City bishop was convicted in secular court for failing to report suspected child abuse, but he remains in office.

Asked at Thursday’s press conference whether the commission would deal with bishop accountability, O’Malley said that was something that the church needs to address, but he said he was not sure whether the commission or a Vatican department would take it on.

Still, McKiernan said he was relieved O’Malley seemed to be coaching Francis on how to address the abuse crisis.

“He is a good mentor for a pope who is absolutely allergic to this topic, as far as I can see,” McKiernan said.

Since his election in March, Francis has been celebrated around the world for his simple lifestyle, advocacy for the poor, down-to-earth sensibility, and emphasis on mercy and compassion. But his near silence on abuse has troubled some church observers. His first notable remarks on the subject came last week, in an address to bishops from the Netherlands, in which he expressed compassion for victims and spoke of his closeness in prayer to them.

John Allen, senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, said that O’Malley, in an interview earlier this year, said that he felt it was crucial for the pope to take major action on the abuse issue.

Reporters covering the Vatican, he said, know that there is a longstanding division within the church between those who want reform on sexual abuse and those who deny that the issue is real or important. By creating this commission, Francis offers a powerful endorsement of the reformers, Allen said.

“I think what is important to O’Malley is to have a standing body in the Vatican continue to act as a beachhead for reform,” he said. “In some ways, who is actually going to sit on it and what it’s going to do is less important than having it created.”

It remains unclear, however, how much effort the Vatican can or will expend to implement proposed changes. In refusing to answer questions this week about sexual abuse posed by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Vatican said that it could not be held accountable for actions of local priests and bishops. The UN committee had sent a questionnaire to the Vatican seeking details about abuse cases referred to the church since 1995.

Asked Thursday about the Vatican’s position on its authority, O’Malley said, “I don’t think there is any doubt the competence lies with the bishops and the local [bishops’] conferences.” He said that in undertaking reforms, the Holy See would try to be helpful and try to identify best practices.

Nicholas Cafardi — dean emeritus and professor at the Duquesne University School of Law, who has written extensively about clergy abuse — noted that Francis has expressed an interest in giving bishops’ conferences more authority over local bishops, which could offer one way for the church to enforce its rules.

“I think [Francis] is laying a foundation for the changes that will come,” Cafardi said. “I hope when they come they are transparent, so we all understand what is happening. And I hope when they come they are effective, because now bishops can ignore the Dallas charter and norms” — the internal church laws laying out how US bishops must respond to abusive priests — “and there are no consequences.”

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lisa.wangsness@globe.com.
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