VATICAN CITY — In his first concrete step to address the clerical sexual-abuse problem in the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis will establish a commission to advise him on protecting children from pedophile priests and on how to counsel victims, the Vatican said Thursday.
The announcement was a forthright acknowledgment by the Vatican of the enduring problem of abusive priests, and fit with Francis’ pattern of willingness to set a new tone in the governance of the church nine months into his tenure.
Whether the new commission portends a significant change in how the Vatican deals with abusive priests and their protectors remains to be seen, experts on the church said. Yet the timing of the announcement, two days after a United Nations panel criticized the Vatican over its handling of abuse cases, suggested that the pope and his closest advisers wanted to at least be seen as tackling the issue with greater firmness.
Soon after he became pope, Francis directed the Vatican last April to act decisively on abuse cases and punish pedophile priests, in a meeting with subordinates at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church’s enforcement arm. But he had said little about the sexual abuse problem since.
“Francis is great on a lot of stuff but hasn’t really done anything about sex abuse cases,” said John L. Allen Jr., the senior correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter, an American weekly, who frequently reports from the Vatican.
“A lot of people most focused on this issue said that Francis needs to game up,” Mr. Allen said in a telephone interview. “So the P.R. thing to say was, ‘We’re doing something.’ ”
The announcement elicited a mixed reaction, reflecting some skepticism, particularly among victims and their advocates, over whether a new commission would be more than cosmetic.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the coordinating body of bishops in the United States, called the pope’s move “a most welcome initiative.” In a statement, the group said: “Abuse of minors is a sin and a crime, and every step must be taken to eradicate this blight. Such abuse is especially grave when committed by anyone in ministry in our church.”
At the same time, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, the leading United States-based support group for clergy abuse victims, called the news a disappointment that reflected badly on the new pope. David Clohessy, executive director of the group, said the announcement suggested that the Vatican remained strongly resistant to making sexually abusive members of the clergy and their church protectors accountable to external criminal prosecution.
“A new church panel is the last thing that kids need,” Mr. Clohessy said in a telephone interview. “Church officials have mountains of information about those who have committed and those who are concealing horrible child sex crimes and cover-ups. They just have to give that information to the police.”
BishopAccountability.org, an organization that has amassed an enormous collection of documents on the abuse problem in the church, gave a cautious welcome to the announcement, but also expressed skepticism.
“It’s good that the Vatican will be giving this terrible problem high-level and focused attention,” Anne Barrett Doyle, the group’s co-director, said in a statement. “But we are concerned that the commission will be toothless and off-target.”
The suggestion to establish a commission came from the group of eight cardinals brought together by the pope a month after his election in March to advise him on reforming the Vatican’s labyrinthine bureaucracy.
Precisely who will serve on the advisory commission and what
authority it will have remained unclear. But Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the
only American among the eight cardinals advising the pope, said it would
include priests, men and women from religious orders and laypeople with
expertise in safeguarding children, and that it would offer advice on pastoral
care rather than judicial functions. That seemed to signal that it would not
make proposals for exposing or punishing abusive clerics.