Vatican sets up special committee on child sex abuse

Pope Francis meets with a special commission of eight cardinals in this handout photo released by the Vatican press office on Dec. 3. AFP PHOTO / OSSERVATORE ROMANO / Getty Images

VATICAN CITY – The Vatican is to set up a special committee to improve measures to protect children against sexual abuse within the Church, the archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley, said on Thursday. 

"Up until now there has been so much focus on the judicial parts of this but the pastoral part is very, very important. The Holy Father is concerned about that," O'Malley told reporters, referring to Pope Francis.

The commission of experts would "study these issues and bring concrete recommendations" for the Pope and the Vatican, he said.

"Continuing decisively along the lines undertaken by Pope Benedict XVI, and accepting a proposal presented by the Council of Cardinals, the Holy Father has decided to establish a specific Commission for the protection of minors, with the aim of advising Pope Francis on the Holy See’s commitment to the protection of children and in pastoral care for victims of abuse,” O’Malley said in a statement.

The committee will lay out a plan of action to prevent cases of abuse in the future. Their duties, as explained by O’Malley, will be the following:

1. study and present programs in place for the protection of children.

2. formulate suggestions for new initiatives on the part of the Curia, in collaboration with bishops, Episcopal conferences, religious superiors and conferences of religious superiors.

3. indicate the names of persons suited to the systematic implementation of these new initiatives, including lay persons, religious and priests with responsibilities for the safety of children, in relations with the victims, in mental health, in the application of the law. 

O'Malley was speaking on the third and final day of a series of closed-door meetings between Pope Francis and a special commission of eight cardinals who are discussing the Vatican's troubled administration.

Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston, listens to a reporter's questions during a press conference at the Vatican, on Thursday. Alessandra Tarantino / AP

The commission, named a month after the pope's election, underlined his determination to push through reforms of the Vatican's top-heavy administration and tackle festering scandals like the issue of sexual abuse of children by priests. 

The Roman Catholic Church has been under scrutiny for almost a decade since hundreds of cases of abuses by priests against children became public. Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, was a controversial figure who was both accused of covering up cases of abuses, and hailed for his efforts in the fight against the problem. 

Before his election as Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican body in charge of dealing with cases of sex abuses.

In 2001, he famously instructed bishops from around the world to report to him all cases of abuse. His detractors saw in that move a way to bypass authorities and cover up potential scandals, while his supporters claim he wanted to take control of the problem so that local bishops wouldn’t fall into the temptation of burying scandals by simply moving priests to other parishes.

Once he became pope, Benedict became an outspoken critic of the way sexual abuses were dealt with in the past, even issuing a dramatic and unprecedented public apology to the thousands of Irish victims of abuse.

In the letter to Irish Catholics, Benedict wrote: “Real progress has been made, yet much more remains to be done.”

But victims’ help associations were disappointed he didn’t apologize for the thousands of victims elsewhere in Europe, and never admitted what they claim was a systematic cover-up of abuses.

Francis seems to agree. His newly announced committee will be faced with the difficult task of re-establishing faith in the Church’s ability to tackle evil from within.

Reuters contributed to this report.