Papal commission on sex abuse votes that member take leave of absence

VATICAN CITY — The papal commission on child protection voted that one of its members — a survivor of abuse and victims’ advocate — take a leave of absence and consider other ways to contribute to the advisory body.

Peter Saunders, founder and chief executive officer of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, told reporters, however, that he would not leave his position on the commission.

“I was appointed by His Holiness Pope Francis and I will talk only with him about my position,” he said Feb. 6.

Pope Francis established the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in 2014 to recommend better ways to protect minors and vulnerable adults and how best to promote “local responsibility in the particular churches” concerning abuse perpetrated by members of the clergy.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, confirmed Feb. 8 that the 17-person commission, which includes another abuse survivor, “approved unanimously with one abstention” that Saunders take a leave of absence to think about other ways to help the commission externally.

U.S. Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston — president of the pontifical commission and one of the pope’s top cardinal advisers — said in a written statement, “Peter Saunders has been asked to advise the commission on the possible establishment of a victim survivor panel to work with the commission.”

Saunders told the Associated Press Feb. 6 that the members concluded they could not trust him to stick to the commission’s mandate as a purely advisory body.

Father Lombardi told reporters Feb. 8 that it was clear the commission’s “course of action is not undertaking a discussion, investigation, judging individual cases” of abuse or lack of accountability.

Saunders has been openly critical of Pope Francis and other top-level church leaders and of the slow pace of the commission’s work when it came to bishops’ accountability in acting upon suspected and known instances of abuse by priests.

He and a group of Chilean Catholics and clerics have voiced particular concern about the pope’s nomination of Bishop Juan Barros in 2015 to the Diocese of Osorno, Chile. The bishop had been accused of covering up for a priest who was known to have committed sexual abuse. Bishop Barros, however, denied having had knowledge of Father Fernando Karadima’s criminal behavior, prior to news about the abuse in the press.

The papal commission, meanwhile, released a press release Feb. 8 saying it was preparing the final version of proposals to make to the pope, including “a request for him to remind all authorities in the church of the importance of responding directly to victims and survivors who approach them.” Members also were working on a recommendation for a universal day of prayer for abuse victims and preparing materials for a special penitential liturgy.

The commission also is developing a website to share best practices for protecting minors, and “workshops on the legal aspects of the protection of minors to establish more transparency around canonical trials” are being planned for later in the year.