ROME — Two survivors of clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, who now sit on a commission advising the pope, hailed Francis’ creation on Wednesday of a new Vatican court designed to impose accountability on bishops who mishandle abuse complaints.
Speaking to Crux via e-mail, British layman Peter Saunders called Wednesday’s announcement “good news,” saying the creation of a tribunal “is a positive step that clearly indicates that Pope Francis is listening to his commission.”
Commission member Marie Collins of Ireland wrote on Twitter:
Very pleased the Pope has approved the Commission's proposal on accountability #pcpm
— Marie Collins (@marielco) June 10, 2015
In an e-mail exchange with Crux, Collins added that putting in place a specific mechanism to ensure accountability in the handling of abuse cases is an important step forward.
“I sincerely believe, if implemented well, this will enhance child protection in the future,” she wrote. “The commission has much work to do, but this is a very important beginning.”
The thumbs-up from Saunders and Collins is significant, given that both have been outspokenly critical of several aspects of the Vatican’s response to the abuse scandals, especially a perceived lack of accountability.
Last February, Saunders said that there’s “an abysmal record of so many ill-judged responses by priests and dioceses around the world.”
Saunders also recently stirred controversy by criticizing Cardinal George Pell’s response to an Australian inquest related to his handling of sexual abuse complaints there, calling his treatment of victims “sociopathic” in a television interview.
Creation of the new tribunal was proposed by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, a body headed by Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley.
The system presented on Wednesday gives power to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to judge bishops who “abuse their office” when handling sexual abuse cases.
A Vatican spokesman said that even though the pope will still have the final word where there are charges of mismanagement against a bishop, “there’s no reason to expect he’d overrule the tribunal’s decision.”
To guarantee everyone’s right to a fair trial, the spokesman added, the bishops will be able to appeal the rulings.
Experts say that what Francis did on Wednesday did not create any new law, because Church law already considered covering up abuse a crime. What was missing, however, was a clear system for enforcing that law.
Francis also approved the assignment of the resources needed for establishing this tribunal. This will allow the office to hire personnel despite the Vatican’s hiring freeze imposed by the Argentinian pontiff in 2013.
Sources told Crux on background that the aim is to hire personnel over the summer in hopes of having the office up and running by fall, before Francis’ highly anticipated visit to the United States in September.
The news comes at the closing of the 10th meeting of the “G9” council of cardinals, a body advising Pope Francis on the reform of Church governance.
The Vatican announced the new tribunal at a press conference on Wednesday. The Rev. Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said the G9 group of cardinals approved the proposal unanimously.
On a statement released last February, the Commission for the Protection of Minors had said it was focusing on accountability “for everyone in the Church — clergy, religious, and laity — who work with minors.”
“Part of ensuring accountability is raising awareness and understanding at all levels of the Church regarding the seriousness and urgency in implementing correct safeguarding procedures,” the statement said.
The commission was announced in December of 2013 and officially created in March 2014. It currently has 17 members: 10 laypeople (including six women and two survivors of sexual abuse), plus five priests and two nuns.