Francis’ papacy at year five; Vatican reboots abuse commission

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Pope Francis arrives Feb. 18 at the Pauline Fathers’ retreat and conference center in Ariccia, a town about 20 miles southeast of Rome. The pope and senior members of the Roman Curia were having their annual Lenten retreat Feb. 18-23. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

VATICAN CITY — As Pope Francis reaches the five-year mark of his papacy, one of the major shifts that has occurred under him is the move to push power away from Rome and out to the local churches. For the pope, the Roman Curia works best when it operates as a coordinating hub, helping dioceses by sharing information and practices from across the global church. 

“I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium,” Francis wrote in one of the most significant lines in “Amoris Laetitia,” his landmark document on marriage and family life. It means that bishops conferences have the freedom to devise their own strategies based on local contexts, and that this is the best way to evangelize.

While this works for how to address marriage and family life, devolution may not necessarily be the best approach when it comes to handling the clerical sexual-abuse scandal. There are experts arguing that more centralization is needed here to ensure that the church has a coordinated approach to handling the problem, which has become a global phenomenon. 

The pope’s own handling of abuse has come under scrutiny recently in relation to the Chilean Bishop Juan Barros, who is accused of turning a blind eye to the abusive behavior of his mentor, Father Fernando Karadima. Victims were upset when Francis said no evidence had been brought forward alleging a Bishop Barros cover-up. A letter was reportedly sent to the pope detailing claims. 

At the heart of this debate is how to ensure both transparent procedures about abuse and ensure accountability for bishops accused of mishandling cases. There are also expectations from survivors that they will be listened to — and believed. 

One of the major complaints of Marie Collins, an Irish abuse victim and safeguarding expert who served on the papal child protection commission, was the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s refusal to answer each letter sent by a survivor. The congregation plays a pivotal role in handling cases of priests accused of abuse. 

For Francis, who has adopted an informal, free-wheeling style and is skeptical of too much faith in systems, a more procedures-based, bureaucratic approach may be needed. When it comes to sexual abuse, what the church knew, when and how it responded is vitally important. 
To that end, the pope announced Feb. 17 a rebooting of his Commission for the Protection of Minors. Nine new members from six continents, including abuse survivors who are remaining unnamed, were appointed to the 16-member panel, which will continue to be led by Cardinal Seán O’Malley, archbishop of Boston. 

Among the new members of the commission is Teresa Kettlekamp, who led the U.S. bishops’ child protection office from 2005 to 2011. She has already been working with the commission to help develop good examples of child safeguarding in the church, particularly in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The truth is that there are some good examples of where the church has developed robust child-protection guidelines, with the United States a leading example. The same can be said for the church in England and Wales, which revamped procedures following an independent inquiry in 2001. One of those involved in that process, Sister Jane Bertelsen, has been appointed to the commission, and she also has experience of drawing up child-protection guidelines in Africa.   

In a statement announcing the new names, the Vatican said it is seeking to adopt a victims/survivors-first approach, and also planning to create a survivors panel made up of people from across the world. Two days before that statement was released, the pope revealed that he has regular Friday meetings with survivors, which had not been disclosed for privacy reasons. 

Francis will have a chance to reflect on all this during his traditional Lenten retreat the week with fellow members of the Roman Curia. It takes place at a Paulist retreat house in Ariccia, southeast of Rome. This year the theme is “Recognizing our thirst for God.” The retreat is being led by a Portuguese priest-poet, Father José Tolentino Mendonça. Intriguingly, and in what is a sign of the openness of Francis’ papacy, the retreat mediations are being inspired by a poem written by Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, a spiritual humanist.  

“I plucked the flower of your glory, o world! / I pressed it to my heart and the thorn pricked,” the first lines of the poem translated into Italian read. “When the day waned and it darkened / I found that the flower had faded ... yet I am thirsty, I still have a great thirst.”


  • pope francis
  • lent
  • clerical sexual abuse of minors

Related Articles