ROME — In Pope Francis’ latest attempt to signal resolve in the Church’s fight against sexual abuse, the pontiff has added eight members to his Commission for the Protection of Minors, including specialists from every continent and another abuse victim.
In an exclusive interview with Crux, that victim — Peter Saunders of the United Kingdom — called the decision a “courageous move” by Francis. (Excerpts from the Saunders interview are below.)
According to a Vatican press release, Francis nominated people from different parts of the world to “have a wide representation of diverse situations and cultures.”
Dr. Krysten Winter-Green is the lone American representative among the new appointees, but she joins Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, who’s been with the commission since it was announced in December 2013 and serves as president, and the Rev. Robert Oliver, who worked under O’Malley in Boston and was appointed the commission’s secretary Sept. 10.
Though Winter-Green is from New Zealand, she lives in Boston. Her expertise in child abuse includes forensics, assessment, and treatment of priest/clergy offenders.
The survivor of abuse, Saunders, joins Marie Collins, an Irish laywoman who was appointed as one of the commission’s eight original members, and who is also an abuse victim.
Collins has been a leading voice for a zero tolerance policy in Ireland, were she was physically abused by a hospital chaplain when she was 13. Saunders, one of six victims of clerical sex abuse who met with Pope Francis in July, was abused from the age of 8 until he was 13.
“I was called over the weekend by Cardinal Sean O’Malley,” Saunders told Crux. “He told me that His Holiness had asked him if I’d be prepared to join the pontifical commission. It took me all of a half second to say yes.”
Today, the 57-year-old Saunders heads a London-based group called the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC). For the past 19 years, he has provided a support system for other victims.
Saunders considers Francis’ decision to include two victims in the commission “absolutely the right thing to do, because not only is there a lot to be done in terms of child protection in the Church, there’s also a lot to be done in building bridges with survivors.”
On the importance of including victims, Oliver said in a November interview that “we want to have all the voices and perspectives, and that includes the victims. [But] they’re not tokens. They have other competencies and reasons for being part of the commission.”
“I’m not joining the commission as a public relations exercise,” he said. “I’m going there with my experience, my heart, and my head to contribute in any way that I can.”
He also said that he knows that Pope Francis has made this issue a priority of his papacy and that he expects for things to move along “because children are still in danger today, everywhere.”
The Commission for the Protection of Minors was created by Francis in December 2013 to lead the charge for reform on the Church’s child sexual abuse scandals. With these appointments, the body now has a total of 17 experts. There are 10 laypeople (six of whom are women), five priests, and two nuns.
Besides the US and England, other new members are from France, Colombia, Philippines, New Zealand, Zambia, and South Africa.
The first plenary assembly of Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors will be at the Vatican on Feb. 6-8.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Saunders talked about his appointment and the abuse commission. Here are excerpts from that conversation:
Why, do you think, were you chosen to become one of the 17 experts of the Commission?
It clearly was a direct result of the conversation I had with Pope Francis back in July, and I think it proves that he listened to what I had to say. And I think it’s a courageous move for him to ask another survivor on to the commission, but I think it’s the absolutely right thing to do, because not only is there a lot to be done in terms of child protection in the Church, there’s also a lot to be done in building bridges with survivors, particularly with survivors who have been very badly treated in the past by the Church, and some of whom and continue to be badly treated.
I think that to have the voices of survivors at the Vatican, close to the heart of the pope’s work, because he has said that the protection of children is a high priority for him. I think it’s a courageous and the right move to involve people who have a deep, sadly personal … experience of what these crimes do to the victims. It shows that he’s indeed a listening pope.
Is something in particular that you told Pope Francis that might have led him to choose you?
This is where I get in trouble with some people for saying things … but I got on very well with him on a personal level. I made a connection with him and I think he made a connection with me. I found him to be very engaging, and I found him very human. And I hope that’s what he saw in me, because I have no pretension of being a clever person; I’m just doing my best, as he is, to support other people. That’s my work and is his work in some way, because that’s God’s work, to love and support others.
I hope that in me he might have seen that, and so he asked me to join. But also, as we discussed back in July, I told him that the Church must do much more. They must cooperate with civil authorities, not hide or protect abusers. And organizations such as NEPAC need support. We’re stretched to our limits. The Church does tremendous work in so many places with the poor, the dying, the sick.
I would like for the Church to join us and help us in our work. So I guess this appointment is a kind of recognition. But the Church works in a different time dimension that the rest of us. So when somebody says to me, “The pope will help you, we will help you,” I don’t know if they mean this century or the next century.
But I think this is a huge step in the right direction. I feel extremely humbled and privileged to have been asked.
Do you think things will move now?
Time will tell. I’m not joining the commission as a public relations exercise. I’m going there with my experience, my heart, and my head to contribute in any way that I can, and I don’t want for these things to take a long time, because children are still in danger today, everywhere.
I know with great hope that the pope, when he talks about protecting children, he isn’t just talking about protecting them in the Catholic community or those who have been abused by Catholic priests. He’s talking about all children, because they’re our concern and I welcome this. It’s very inclusive.
I’m hopeful that things will move quicker than they’ve been in the past.
What’s the one thing that you hope to help the Church achieve by becoming a member?
If I had to choose one thing that I can contribute to in any way, it would be to save one more child from being abused. That’s our priority. My work here is with survivors, but as you know, every survivor, the one thing we want more than anything else is to protect today’s and tomorrow’s children from suffering what we did. And if I can contribute in helping to save one child from a lifetime of bitterness because of being abused, that would be a great achievement.
But we can do a lot more than that. We can make a difference to our community and our little globe that we live on.
The pope heads up the largest religious institution and community of Christians in the world, so this is huge. I’m placing my trust in him and praying that it’s the right thing to do. And I think that it is.