ROME — Almost a year after the Vatican announced plans for a new papal commission to lead the charge for reform on the Church’s child sexual abuse scandals, the chief of staff for the group says it’s now hitting its stride.
“We’re talking about changing Catholic structures, collecting what we’ve done in the past 12 years,” said the Rev. Robert Oliver, referring to reforms adopted since the abuse scandals erupted in the United States in 2002.
The commission, Oliver said, wants to lead the universal Church in “learning from the best practices as well as our mistakes, sharing this knowledge with those who need it, and discussing how we can work to make sure that our children will be safer.”
Oliver, a former advisor to Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston on sexual abuse matters, is Secretary of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors announced last December. He sat down for an exclusive interview with Crux at the commission’s new Vatican headquarters.
Skeptics about the Vatican’s resolve to turn a corner on the abuse scandals have complained about the time it’s taken to get the new commission up and running, especially compared to the pace at which other reforms under Pope Francis are moving.
On background, a senior Vatican official this week defended the delay.
“When the commission was announced, the world expected an office with 45 employees, making decisions on the spot,” he told Crux. “But they’re building something that will become part of the Church’s ministry, a major component in the way we address the issue of abuse and on the defense of children and vulnerable adults.”
“We can’t make mistakes,” he said “We can’t afford a misstep.”
Though they’re still being remodeled, the offices for the new commission occupy a prime piece of Vatican real estate. To reach them, one has to pass through the Domus Santa Marta, the Vatican hotel that’s become famous as the residence of Pope Francis.
Oliver says he’s aware that convincing people the Church is serious about change will take time.
“We’re not proud, at all,” he said. “We know we have a terrible history, but we can share with people that what we’re doing now is working.”
He’s also conscious of the fact that, due to its track record, the Catholic Church suffers from a trust deficit when it comes to fighting abuse.
“But when people come to work with us, we do have a little bit of credibility,” he said.
Oliver says one goal of the commission is to help others avoid the same “awful learning curve” already experienced in the United States and Europe with regard to the abuse scandals. He offered the example of Church officials in Africa, Asia, and Latin America where, he said, many still don’t know what to do when they receive an accusation.
“In Ireland, we have a third generation of prevention of clerical sex abuse,” he said. “We need for them to become missionaries: go to Nigeria, take their knowledge there, enculturate it, hear back from the Nigerians, and learn from their wisdom.”
The commission’s next step will be adding new members to its original line-up of eight, which includes O’Malley.
Currently awaiting the approval of Pope Francis, nine new specialists are being considered, including two from Austral-Asia, one from Asia, two from Latin America, one from the US, and a married couple from Africa.
“It’s going to be a multidisciplinary and multicultural group formed by those who are among the world’s best in their fields: Psychologists, medical doctors, and law enforcement,” Oliver said.
The group will also include at least two more survivors of clerical sex abuse. One victim, Irish laywoman Marie Collins, was appointed as one of eight original members.
“We want to have all the voices and perspectives, and that includes the victims,” Oliver said. “They’re not tokens. They have other competencies and reasons for being part of the commission.”
The commission’s first comprehensive assembly is scheduled for mid-February 2015. From there, the idea is to form smaller working groups to explore different topics related to the protection of children.
The working groups will focus on one topic, working it through with the assistance of other specialists “in a very transparent way,” Oliver said.
To guarantee transparency, the commission will have a website where all its findings will be made available and reaction will be invited. Oliver gave the example of policies adopted by bishops in various parts of the world on “mandatory reporting,” meaning a requirement to report abuse allegations to police and civil authorities.
“You let the people have at it and see what we learn,” he said.
Eventually, Oliver said, the site will become a “handbook, a guideline” where personnel working to protect children can see “who’s doing what, what has worked in the past, and also what’s failed.”
The commission isn’t waiting until February to begin the hard work. Statutes have been defined, the budget is being analyzed, and a wide range of 12 topics are being considered by the members to guarantee that after the plenary, the working groups have specific topics to tackle.
Oliver said that over time, he hopes the commission can become a force for child protection not just in the Catholic Church, but society at large.
Surveying the global situation, he noted that the US Centers for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused in the United States before the age of 18. The US Department of Health and Human Services registered 63,527 cases of child sexual abuse in 2010.
In India, he said, statistics show 1 in 2 girls is abused before the age of 18.
“Those aren’t Church problems, in the sense that most of these victims are not being abused by priests,” Oliver said. “But it’s the Church’s problem because these are our people. What do these [statistics] do to society? To our children? What do they say about our future?”
Oliver said he feels fully supported by Pope Francis, in part because O’Malley is also a member of the pope’s council of cardinal advisors and provides the pontiff with constant updates about the commission’s activity.
He said that the new offices also help, in that senior officials are constantly passing through on their way to Santa Marta and thus he’s well positioned to keep them in the loop.
“Whenever I run into Cardinals Pietro Parolin [the Vatican Secretary of State] or George Pell [the pope’s finance czar], they ask me how we’re doing,” Oliver said. “Everyone around here has been highly involved.”