ROME – As President John F. Kennedy famously said after the Bay of Pigs disaster in 1961, more or less paraphrasing Tacitus, “Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.” The odd thing from a media point of view is that it’s often precisely the opposite way around – failure is a celebrity, success a nobody.
That is to say, it’s considered news when war breaks out, planes fall from the sky, systems break down and leaders stumble. When peace holds, the plane lands safely, the checks arrive on time, and leaders quietly do their jobs, nobody seems to notice.
Perhaps that insight helps explain why the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, the body established by Pope Francis in 2014 to advise him on policies to combat sexual abuse, has long struggled to tell its story to the world – against the backdrop of spectacular failures and noisy controversy on the Church’s anti-sex abuse front, steady lower-level success doesn’t quite cut through the noise.
Naturally, the commission has had some stumbles and setbacks.
Much has been made of the fact, for example, that two former members of the body who are also survivors of sexual abuse, Peter Saunders of the U.K. and Marie Collins of Ireland, both departed under different sets of circumstances, and both later expressed frustration with the pace of change and perceived internal resistance.
Both have also been critical of what they see as missteps by Francis, including his handling of the case of Bishop Juan Barros in Chile and accusations that Barros engaged in a cover-up of crimes by that country’s most notorious abuser priest, Fernando Karadima.
Likewise, much has also been made of the fact that Francis allowed the membership of the commission to “lapse” in December, and only got around to appointing new members on Saturday, meaning Feb. 16. It’s fair to point out that’s basically business as usual in the Vatican, so the delay is hardly unusual, but then critics will say that’s precisely the point – in the struggle against child sexual abuse, “business as usual” just doesn’t cut it.
Still there’s a strong argument to be made that over the almost four years of its existence, the commission has quietly had a substantive impact on making the Catholic Church a safer place for children in many parts of the world.
For one thing, commission members have crisscrossed the planet delivering training seminars on abuse prevention, detection and response for Church leaders, including in regions of the world that were once resistant to accepting the whole idea that child abuse was actually a serious risk in the Catholic Church. As time has gone on, the number and range of those invitations has continued to grow, suggesting a growing awareness and receptivity to the commission’s leadership.
Further, there are also indications that the commission’s example is having a leavening effect on local churches around the world.
In 2016, for instance, Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, India – a member of the pope’s “C9” council of cardinal advisers, and the president of the Indian bishops’ conference – set up his own child protection panel in Mumbai, telling Crux that his idea in doing so was to “bring the spirit of the commission” to his own archdiocese.
The commission has also contributed significantly to reviewing anti-abuse guidelines in countries that already have them, and prodding and assisting countries that don’t into producing them, in part by developing a model set of guidelines to serve as a basis for local adaptation.
Moreover, the commission has developed a “Day of Prayer,” as well as educational days on how different churches can work on the anti-abuse fight within their communities. It’s also undertaken a theological reflection on the significance of the sex abuse crisis for the theological understanding of the Church and for its core spiritual convictions.
Admirers believe that the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors has helped foster a growing culture of child safety in the Church, often without a great deal of fanfare, but also with real, if imperfect and incomplete, results.
The appointments made Saturday reflect, and arguably augment, that track record.
Nine new members were unveiled, including Teresa Kettelkam, a former Illinois state police colonel and head of the U.S. Bishops’ Child Protection Office from 2005 to 2011, who was working for the commission in Rome but has now returned to the United States. She’s widely recognized as a leading reform voice in child protection issues, and thus will remain part of the commission’s mix.
Monsignor Robert Oliver, another American and a former aide to Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who was confirmed as president of the commission, remains a full member as well as the director of its office.
In other words, the appointments were a broad thumbs-up from the pope for the work of the commission, while also broadening its global scope and range with members from Ethiopia, India, Tonga and Brazil, as well as Australia, the U.K. and the States.
O’Malley stressed the basic affirmation delivered by the pontiff.
“The Holy Father has ensured continuity in the work of our commission, which is to assist local churches throughout the world in their efforts to safeguard all children, young people, and vulnerable adults from harm,” he said.
A statement released on Saturday indicated that victims and survivors of abuse are among the appointments, though the individuals have chosen to disclose their experiences only within the context of the commission rather than doing so publicly.
Despite that anonymity, survivors may have an even greater voice if a possible panel of victims eventually gets off the ground. It’s currently being studied under the leadership of the Baroness Sheila Hollins, a former commission member and a former president of the U.K.’s Royal College of Psychiatrists.
In recent weeks, Francis has drawn significant fire for his record on the sexual abuse scandals, including not only the Barros’ case itself but also his testy response to critics on the way back from Chile – among other things, accusing victims of “calumny” and suggesting they should offer “proof” if they want him to act.
The pope’s recent revelation that he meets “regularly” with abuse survivors on Fridays in the Vatican was of consolation to some, though Collins, the survivor and former commission member, was skeptical.
“Are some of these meetings with victims of clerical abuse who might challenge the pope on Church’s handling of abuse and show him what change is needed? Purely pastoral meetings are admirable but in a global context meaningless if survivors like [Barros accuser Juan Carlos Cruz] are being ignored,” she tweeted Feb. 16.
Perhaps the quiet progress being logged by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, and the continuity Francis apparently has ensured for that progress, may not be enough to crack the headlines in quite the same way, at least for now.
If history does eventually judge the Church’s efforts at recovery a success, however, the events of Saturday may go down as one those quiet moments in which the tectonic plates shifted once more in the right direction.