Pope Francis on Saturday named Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston and seven other figures with reputations as reformers to guide a new Vatican antiabuse commission, a move intended to demonstrate resolve about confronting the child sexual abuse scandals that have rocked Catholicism.
O’Malley, already the lone American on the pope’s “G8” council of cardinal advisers, is also the lone American among the commission members announced Saturday. O’Malley’s new responsibility is not a full-time position, meaning he will not move to Rome and will continue to serve as the archbishop of Boston.
The lineup for the new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors also includes Irish laywoman Marie Collins, who has said she was raped at the age of 13 by a hospital chaplain. When she tried to report the abuse years later, she said, she was told by church officials that “protecting the good name” of the priest was more important than remedying a “historical” wrong.
Collins has acquired an international reputation as a campaigner for the rights of abuse victims.
The pope tapped three clergy and five laity, including four women. The panel’s members come from eight countries, with seven from Europe or the United States.
Though early reaction suggests some critics of the church’s response to the abuse scandals see the announcement as a public relations exercise, a Vatican spokesman said it reflects the late Pope John Paul II’s statement that “there is no place in the priesthood or religious life for those who would harm the young.”
In a sign of personal interest, Pope Francis also named a fellow Argentine and Jesuit priest, the Rev. Humberto Miguel Yáñez, who was received by the future pope into the Jesuit order in 1975 and who studied under him at an Argentine Jesuit college. He is seen as having direct access to the pontiff.
The other members announced Saturday are:
- The Rev. Hans Zollner, a German Jesuit and the academic vice rector of the Gregorian University in Rome and head of its Institute of Psychology. Zollner coordinated a major antiabuse conference in Rome in 2012 called “Toward Healing and Renewal.”
- Hanna Suchocka, a former prime minister of Poland and Poland’s former ambassador to the Vatican.
- Claudio Papale, an Italian lay expert on church law who teaches at Rome’s Pontifical Urbaniana University.
- Catherine Bonnet, a French child psychologist who has written widely on the effects of sexual abuse and exploitation on children.
- Baroness Sheila Hollins, a former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and current president of the British Medical Association who has frequently consulted on child development issues in the United Kingdom.
People not authorized to speak on the record told the Globe that Francis chose not to issue a legal document providing a structure and mandate for the new commission, preferring to allow the people he has put in charge to work out those details. The initial group will also make recommendations to the pope for additional members “from various geographical regions of the world.”
While plans originally called for the antiabuse body to be housed within the Vatican’s powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Saturday’s announcement suggests it will have a more independent profile reporting directly to the pope.
The announcement comes at a time when Francis had been facing mounting criticism for a perceived blind spot on the abuse scandals.
In early March, the pontiff gave an interview to an Italian newspaper in which he seemed defensive about criticism of the church’s record, saying it “is perhaps the lone public institution to have moved with transparency and responsibility . . . yet the church is the only one to have been attacked.”
Just days later, the American advocacy group BishopAccountability.org released records purporting to show that the future pope had failed to act aggressively on five cases involving priests accused of abuse in Argentina, though only one of those priests was actually ever under his direct authority.
People who were not authorized to speak on the record said Francis took a personal interest in the makeup of the antiabuse commission, phoning subordinates in the Vatican in order to work out the timing of the announcement.
The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, the main American advocacy group for victims, released a statement Saturday welcoming the choice of Collins but voicing suspicion that the commission “will be more about public relations than real change.”
“Catholic officials have concealed child sex crimes for centuries and still are concealing child sex crimes,” the statement said. “They do not need yet another ‘Study Commission.’ The pope must take strong steps right now to protect kids, expose predators, discipline enablers, and uncover cover-ups.”
In part, Francis’ choice of O’Malley may reflect that he is the American cardinal closest to the pope, being the only one to have stayed in Francis’ residence in Buenos Aires before his election. In part, however, it also probably reflects that the Boston prelate has one of the most complete résumés of any senior church official in dealing with the abuse crisis.
His experience began in the Fall River, Mass., diocese in 1992, where he took over amid a scandal centering on the Rev. James Porter, who was convicted of molesting 28 children and confessed to abusing at least 100 over a 30-year period. In 2002, O’Malley moved to Palm Beach, Fla., where he followed two different bishops who resigned after acknowledging offenses against minors.
One year later, O’Malley succeeded the controversial Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston, eventually settling more than 100 abuse claims against the archdiocese and touting a “zero-tolerance” policy. He has led penitential liturgies apologizing to abuse victims around the world and called for new procedures to hold bishops accountable if they fail to respond aggressively to abuse claims.
While SNAP calls O’Malley’s record, including his refusal to issue a complete list of names of accused Boston priests, “deeply flawed,” the archdiocese on his watch has gone from the global epicenter of the abuse crisis to a venue seen in many Catholic circles as an example of essentially successful recovery.
O’Malley declined a Globe request to speak about his role on the commission beyond what was in the Vatican announcement. In an early February interview with the Globe, however, O’Malley discussed the commission and Francis’ broader approach to the abuse crisis.
“He’s certainly aware of how serious this issue is,” O’Malley said of the new pope at that time. “I don’t think he has a plan yet for how to deal with it.”
O’Malley suggested that one important function of the new commission might be working with national-level conferences of bishops around the world to ensure that they have all implemented antiabuse guidelines.
The aim of that effort, he said, is “to have some clarity about what the expectations are throughout the world.”
O’Malley also suggested that the commission might be able to make progress on what many critics charge is the most serious piece of unfinished business from the crisis, which is holding bishops accountable if they fail to apply the church’s official “zero-tolerance” policy.
Critics point, for instance, to Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Mo., who was found guilty in September 2012 of a misdemeanor charge of failure to report a priest accused of abuse and yet remains in office. Finn was acquitted of a second charge.
“I hope this commission will help the church develop protocols, so there will be a very clear path to follow” in such cases, O’Malley said. He added that it would likely not be the commission’s job to investigate individual cases, but rather to help develop procedures the pope can apply when charges arise that a bishop has failed to respond appropriately.
The new commission is expected to meet two or three times a year, with members staying in touch by phone and e-mail in the meantime.