ROME — A clerical sexual abuse survivor who has been bitterly critical of the response from the Vatican and Pope Francis to several high-profile recent controversies involving abuse scandals has been asked to take a “leave of absence” by other members of the panel.
But the member, Peter Saunders of Great Britain, said at at press conference later Saturday that as far as he’s concerned, he’s still part of the commission.
“I have not left, and I am not leaving my place,” Saunders said. “I was appointed by Pope Francis, and I will only talk to him about my position on the commission.”
A short Vatican statement released Saturday said that Saunders, an abuse survivor named to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in 2015, a body created by Pope Francis in March 2014, will now ponder “how he might best support the commission’s work.”
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, who heads the commission, said Saturday that he has asked Saunders “to advise the commission on the possible establishment of a victim survivor panel to work with the commission.”
Saunders is the founder of the UK-based National Association for People Abused in Childhood, and was named to the commission in 2015 as one of nine new members. When he met Francis in 2014 as part of the pontiff’s first meeting with abuse victims, Saunders expressed optimism about his resolve.
In an exclusive interview with The Boston Globe at the time, he described meeting Francis as a “life-changing experience.”
“I believe him to be a sincere man,” Saunders said, “and I believe him to be someone who wants to do this right.”
Since then, however, Saunders has had an increasingly critical attitude toward the pope, questioning Francis’ appointment of Chilean Bishop Juan Barros to the diocese of Osorno, the pope’s apparent support of spanking children, and Francis’ backing for the Vatican’s secretary for the economy, Australian Cardinal George Pell.
The choice of Barros in early 2015 sparked nationwide protest in Chile, with survivors’ groups accusing him of concealing sexual abuse allegations against the Rev. Fernando Karadima, a well-known local priest with strong ties to the country’s elite.
In 2011, Karadima was sentenced by the Vatican to a life of “penance and prayer” after being found guilty of pedophilia and abuse of his ecclesiastical position. No charges were brought against Barros, under either the Church’s canon law or Chilean civil law.
Saunders was also very critical of Francis when he said that he admired parents who spank their children, “but never in the face so as not to humiliate them.”
“Children don’t need to be hit. We need to talk about positive parenting … physical violence has no part in modern-day child upbringing,” Saunders told reporters at the time.
“I was hit throughout my childhood and it did me a lot of harm,” he added. From the age of 8 until he was 13, he was sexually abused by a member of his family, a lay teacher, and two priests of the Catholic school he attended.
As for Pell, handpicked by Francis to reform the Vatican’s finances, Saunders told Australian “60 Minutes” in June 2015 that the cardinal’s allegedly “callous” past treatment of sex abuse victims was “almost sociopathic”.
The prelate’s record is currently under examination by a Royal Commission in Australia, based on accusations from earlier in his career when he was a priest and auxiliary bishop, with victims saying he didn’t do enough about abuse charges against other clergy.
In a statement released at the time, Pell called Saunders’ charges “false” and “outrageous.”
Saunders is currently in Rome participating in the commission’s third general assembly, which will end Sunday. Before the meeting, he told The Los Angeles Times that “Francis has said phenomenally damaging and painful things about survivors.”
“People in Chile now see the commission as a laughingstock, and I cannot pretend the commission means anything unless he sacks Barros.”
He also said it would be “outrageous” if Francis didn’t attend the meeting, saying it would be the “end of the honeymoon” with the Argentine pontiff.
“The last meeting in October was a non-event,” Saunders said. “I was told that Rome was not built in a day, but the problem is that it takes seconds to rape a child.”
Speaking on background, a commission member told Crux on Saturday that seeing Saunders step aside was a “sad decision,” and one that resulted from lengthy internal deliberations.
“He’s been under a lot of pressure from different victims’ groups, who wanted him to take a stand on individual cases, but the commission doesn’t do that,” the member said, who asked not to be identified because members are not authorized to speak publicly.
“We don’t have all the facts, all the information and investigations, so we can’t comment on every case,” the member said.
A Vatican official who’s close to the commission’s work told Crux on Saturday that in terms of his future role, Saunders has a decision to make.
“He has to decide if he’s an advocate and campaigner [for survivors] instead of being an adviser,” the official said.
Saunders spoke to journalists at Rome’s Marriott Grand Flora Hotel together with Juan Carlos Cruz, one of Karadima’s victims in Chile. Cruz was in Rome for business, and had hoped that, with Saunders’ help, he’d be able to deliver a set of letters from the clergy and faithful of Osorno either to Francis or to the commission.
Cruz said that he’ll continue to try to deliver the letters, even if it’s by leaving them at the lobby in the Santa Marta, the hotel on Vatican grounds where Francis lives, because “the people of Osorno have been let down enough times.”
Saunders told reporters he’s going to “think and pray” about what he’ll do now regarding the commission, but he says he may attend Sunday’s meeting.
“I haven’t had a call from His Holiness, so as far as I’m concerned, I’m still a member,” he said. “I would obviously have to think about it … my priority is how we help children. My hope had been that we could do so through the commission.”
Saunders acknowledged that he’s “guilty” of speaking too much to the press. This, together with “being a campaigner,” were two of the concerns brought up by the other members of the commission, who on Saturday morning held a “no confidence” vote to remove him from the body.
“A number of the members of the commission expressed the concern that I don’t toe the line when it comes to keeping my mouth shut,” he said. “I made it clear that I wouldn’t be part of a public relations exercise. The protection of our children is much more important than that.”
Saunders also said that he’s “disappointed” in Pope Francis, because there are many things the pope could have done in the past year to help protect children. Referring to a Vatican trial against five people accused of filtering confidential information on the Church’s finances, he said he wonders why “financial whistleblowers” make headlines.
“When a child is being raped, where are the headlines?” he said. “It seems our Church is more protective of money than our children.”
Saunders called the commission “a disgrace,” adding that “they [the Church] believe that child abuse, rape, is behind us already. This is not behind us.”
While some see Saunder’s situation as emblematic of the Vatican’s failure to respond adequately to the abuse scandals, others describe his departure as long overdue.
“As a friend of Peter and someone who has seen the commission at close hand, it has been obvious that for some time there has been a tension within it over its identity and role,” said Austen Ivereigh, a British biographer of Pope Francis.
“Peter saw it as a lobby representing abuse victims’ interests and demands … [while] others saw it was a policy-making unit of experts to assist the Church in implementing guidelines beholden to no one, at the service of the Pope,” he said.
“Peter could have a role, but the commission members have made a definite decision to be an independent Vatican policy-making body,” Ivereigh said. “This frees it now to do its work.”