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ROME – Members of Pope Francis’s commission for child protection have praised his decision to incorporate the body into the Roman curia, the Vatican’s central governing bureaucracy, voicing confidence they will maintain full independence while expanding their reach.
Speaking to journalists during a press conference Friday, American Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors (PCPM), said he’s encouraged by the pope, who for the first time “has placed the importance of child protection as a core of the church’s central government.”
In March, Pope Francis published his long-awaited constitution Praedicate Evangelium, or “Preach the Gospel,” outlining several noteworthy changes to the structure of the Roman curia.
One change was the official incorporation of the PCPM into the curia as an independent entity within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, now called the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), which will continue to operate with its own rules, president, and secretary.
This week, the PCPM held its first plenary meeting since the announcement of its incorporation into the curia, and they met with Pope Francis Friday, the last day of their meeting.
Pope Francis, O’Malley said, assured commission members that their autonomy, while being part of the curia, “is meant to ensure the integrity of its expertise, and especially in its freedom to give advice to the Holy Father on these delicate matters.”
A running concern among critics of the move has been whether the PCPM will really be able to maintain its independence. Past commission members often complained that Vatican departments ignored their suggestions or resisted attempts to implement best practices and basic guidelines.
Some observers hope this will change now that the PCPM is formally part of the curia itself, and that the body’s recommendations will be taken more seriously and acted on with more enthusiasm.
However, many are still skeptical, including Irish abuse survivor Marie Collins, a former member of the commission who resigned in 2017 due to what she said was a lack of cooperation from curial departments.
When the decision to incorporate the PCPM into the curia was made, Collins sent a tweet saying the commission “has now officially lost even a semblance of independence,” and questioned whether the move was really a step forward.
O’Malley addressed concerns about the PCPM’s independence directly, saying the pope has assured commission members that “although we will be part of the CDF, that the commission will be independent, that he appoints the president, and the secretary, and the staff.”
“We will try and work closely with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith while maintaining our own independence, which will allow us to communicate directly to the Holy Father our recommendations and thoughts,” he said, indicating the commission will have regular face time with the pope.
In being incorporated into the curia, “the work of protection has been strengthened,” O’Malley said, saying commission members “are very, very thankful to our Holy Father, who has lifted up the work of the commission and has placed it firmly within the structure of the curia.”
“We are confident that our presence there will be very valuable in allowing us to promote a culture of safeguarding within the Roman curia,” he said.
In his audience with commission members Friday, Pope Francis stressed the importance of building trust in the church through transparency and accountability.
To this end, he asked commission members to assist bishops’ conferences in establishing listening centers for survivors, where they can be welcomed and find healing and justice. He also asked for an annual audit of the status of safeguarding among the ecclesial hierarchy evaluating what’s being done right, what needs to change, and efforts toward accountability.
Father Andrew Small, secretary of the PCPM, told journalists Friday that being part of the curia will make this work easier, saying it will become “a ‘one-stop shop’ of protection, proactive vision of child dignity and the protection of vulnerable persons, and then obviously the question of wrongdoing and the question of justice.”
Chilean abuse survivor Juan Carlos Cruz, who is a member of the commission, also spoke to journalists Friday, saying the decision to incorporate the body into the curia is helpful, “because this couldn’t be a commission that was a satellite floating somewhere, so it is important that it is rooted somewhere, and being in the CDF will help, in the measure that we can, to follow up with cases.”
Cruz said that he and other commission members routinely get questions from survivors asking for a status update on their cases, having heard nothing since the original complaint was filed.
To keep survivors waiting for indefinite periods of time without any information on the status of their cases, he said, is “not fair, it’s not human, and it’s not right.”
Having an official status and the “mandate” to work with bishops’ conferences on establishing these survivor listening centers will help in obtaining “some kind of explanation of where their cases are, that they’re not in some limbo in some dark hole that nobody knows, which can be incredibly retraumatizing and revictimizing for survivors,” he said, voicing confidence that the commission will maintain its independence.
Cruz also touched on the issue of what he said is a “societal fatigue or media fatigue” with the abuse crisis, saying he has heard people within the curia say, “Isn’t it enough? Haven’t we don’t enough already? Poor priests, poor bishops!”
“No, we’re going to follow up to the bitter end,” Cruz said. “Sex abuse has been going on for far too long, but we still have a long way to go… unfortunately, this has not ended. We have made good strides to be better, but we still have a long way to go.”
“People get scared sometimes when we say that this is just the tip of the iceberg, but frankly, it still is,” he said, voicing confidence that the commission’s new curial status will help with the implementation of best practices not only in dioceses, but also within Vatican departments.
Noting that different cases are sent to different departments depending on who is involved, Cruz said at times getting information from these departments can be “a mystery,” and that follow-up will be important.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen