Pope revives lapsed sex abuse commission amid skepticism

Bishop Juan Barros, second from right, arrives to attend a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis at the Maquehue Air Base in Temuco, Chile, Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018. Many Chileans are furious over Francis’ 2015 decision to appoint Barros, a bishop close to the Rev. Fernando Karadima, who the Vatican found guilty in 2011 of abusing dozens of minors over decades. Barros has always denied he knew what Karadima was doing when he was the priest’s protege, a position that many Chileans have a hard time believing. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis revived his lapsed sex abuse advisory commission by naming new members Saturday, after coming under fire for his overall handling of the scandal and his support for a Chilean bishop accused by victims of witnessing and ignoring their abuse.

The announcement of the new members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors came on the same day that a Vatican investigator will take the testimony in New York of one of the main whistleblowers in the Chilean cover-up scandal.

Francis tasked Archbishop Charles Scicluna with the fact-finding mission into Bishop Juan Barros after he came under blistering criticism in Chile for defending Barros and calling the victims’ cover-up accusations against him slander.

The initial three-year mandate of commission members had lapsed two months ago, on Dec. 17. Francis named nine new members Saturday and kept seven from the initial group. A Vatican statement said survivors of abuse are included, but didn’t identify them to protect their privacy.

None of the most outspoken lay advocates for victims from the original group returned, but a statement stressed that the commission’s work would be imbued throughout with the experience of victims. Commission members are to open their April plenary by meeting with victims privately, and discussions are continuing to create an “international survivor advisory panel” to advise the commission and make sure the voices of victims are heard in all its deliberations, the statement said.

Francis created the commission in December 2013, responding to complaints that he hadn’t prioritized the fight against clerical abuse and cover-up enough. The group’s mission was to advise the pope on best practices to protect children, but it faced strong in-house resistance to some of its core proposals.

Commission members found greater reception in hosting grassroots workshops in bishops’ conferences around the world. To date, it has worked with almost 200 dioceses and religious communities worldwide to raise awareness and to educate staff on safeguarding.

The first members of the commission were named in March 2014, including Marie Collins, an Irish survivor of abuse and advocate for victims. But by March of last year, Collins had resigned, citing the “unacceptable” resistance to the commission from within the Vatican, and in particular the office tasked with investigating sex abuse cases.

The commission’s most significant proposal came in 2015, when it successfully persuaded Francis and his “kitchen cabinet” to create a tribunal section inside the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to judge bishops who botched handling cases of their abuser priests. Francis approved funding and personnel for an initial five-year term.

But amid resistance, the tribunal never got off the ground and Francis scrapped it entirely in 2016. Instead, he issued a document laying out essentially existing procedures for the Vatican to investigate negligence. There is no transparency to the process, however.

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