Days after Pope Francis instructed the world's bishops to cooperate with the commission on sexual abuse he established last year, the seventeen-member group met for the first time in Rome. During a press conference at the Vatican this morning, Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, spoke about the commission's work, which will include promoting education about child safety, suggesting best practices to dioceses, and developing methods for measuring compliance with those norms. The commission is "very concerned" with the question of accountability for bishops who fail to protect the vulnerable, O'Malley said, and would recommend consequences in time. He stopped short of suggesting what those consequences might be, but said that there must be a way of dealing with such cases "not in an open-ended way."

The commission is working on educational programs for church leaders--including seminars for members of the Roman Curia and for newly appointed bishops who visit Rome for episcopal orientation, according to O'Malley. The cardinal also said he is asking every bishops conference to name a person who will serve as a liason between the commission and the local church. In 2011, the Vatican asked dioceses to turn in their child-protection norms. At this point, about 96 percent of dioceses have complied, O'Malley said. The commission will be in touch with the rest. Very few dioceses have not yet developed such norms, according to the cardinal. But more than a few have guidelines that are too "weak."

O'Malley is urging Catholic funding organizations to include child-protection requirements in their funding-eligibility guidelines--and to help dioceses in poorer countries pay for abuse-prevention training.

Differences across cultures is another aspect of the crisis being examined by the commission. In Africa, for example, "there are issues of abuse that have to be addressed very urgently," according to Fr. Hans Zollner, another member of the commission, who spoke with Vatican Radio yesterday. Zollner, who heads the Institute of Psychology at the Gregorian University in Rome, mentioned "the abuse of power in a very authoritarian way by bishops and priests, the abuse of women--including religious women--by priests, which is not so frequent in Europe or the United States," but too common in some parts of Africa. And in some Asian cultures "the public debate on abuse does not take place because in the society at large...sexual abuse is an absolute taboo topic," Zollner explained.

The commission is also organizing a world day of prayer for abuse victims. "Such an activity underscores our responsibility to work for spiritual healing and also helps raise consciousness among the Catholic community about the scourge of child abuse," O'Malley said at the press conference.

The cardinal was joined by two other members of the commission: Kayula Lesa, a Sister of Charity from Zambia, who has worked in education and child protection, and Peter Saunders, a clerical abuse victim from England, where he established the National Association for People Abused in Childhood.

In response to a reporter's question about whether the commission will examine the causes of sexual abuse, Saunders said that he hopes to look at celibacy's role. "In my version of the Bible, Jesus never said, 'If you want to follow me, you have to be celibate.'" (O'Malley pointed out that most sexual abuse happens in families.) Saunders expressed surprise that none of the assembled journalists asked him about the pope's comment endorsing limited corporal punishment, and took the opportunity to criticize the pope's remark. "I'm the only dad sitting up here--at least we hope," Saunders joked. But had the pope become a father instead of a Father, Saunders speculated, he would know that deliberately inflicting pain on a child is never a good idea.

Citing the church's "abysmal" record on the abuse scandal, Saunders admitted that he joined the commission with "trepidation," but feels reassured after the group's first meeting. Still, he pledged to quit the commission if he fails to see results in a year's time. "Kids only get one stab at childhood," he said.


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Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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