In response to all the depressing coverage of the sexual abuse crisis we hear, we are naturally driven to ask, “Has anything changed?” There is a sense that cases have declined since the 60s and 70s, but with each new case, we wonder whether anything is being done. Most Catholics are likely unaware of what is being done in the Vatican to prevent future abuse and to accompany survivors. When I was in Rome last Spring, I was fortunate to meet and spend time with some of the people who are helping to develop a culture of safeguarding in the Church and to learn about the work they are doing to protect the vulnerable.

Carol Glatz of Catholic News Service’s Rome bureau had an important article yesterday on Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, who traveled to Rome for the funeral of Pope Benedict XVI. The Archbishop of Boston turns 80 in a year and a half, meaning that he will soon reach the mandatory retirement age for his many responsibilities. In addition to his 19 years of leading Boston’s Catholics, O’Malley has also served on Pope Francis’s Council of Cardinal Advisers (better known as the C9 or C6) since 2013, and as a member of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) since 2017.

It is possible, however, that Cardinal O’Malley’s greatest legacy in the universal Church will be his work as the President of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, a position he has held since the Commission was established in 2014. An independent body reporting directly to the pope (but situated within the DDF), the Commission is made up of clergy, religious and lay members from around the world. The members include survivors of clerical sexual abuse, who not only participate as members of the Commission, but also serve as advocates for other survivors and in helping to ensure the Commission’s accountability and independence.

Pope Francis, when establishing the Commission in 2014, articulated their mission:

“The Commission’s specific task is to propose to me the most opportune initiatives for protecting minors and vulnerable adults, in order that we may do everything possible to ensure that crimes such as those which have occurred are no longer repeated in the Church. The Commission is to promote local responsibility in the particular Churches, uniting their efforts to those of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, for the protection of all children and vulnerable adults.”

In other words, the Commission’s work is to help establish and support the global Church’s policies and procedures to safeguard the vulnerable from abuse. This work is distinct but related to the work of the DDF’s disciplinary section, which handles cases of abuse. The Commission’s focus is on prevention.

In March of last year, Pope Francis gave the commission additional tasks. The first of these was to provide an annual report that would track and analyze efforts to set up and maintain safekeeping standards and processes in the Church around the world. The second task was “to assist and oversee in dialogue with the Conferences of Bishops – in establishing suitable centres where individuals who have experienced abuse, and their family members, can find acceptance and an attentive hearing, and be accompanied in a process of healing and justice.”

You can watch the press conference in which members of the Commission discuss their expanded mandate and answer questions about issues like how they will maintain their independence from other offices in the curia in light of the curial reform here (it’s mostly in English).

In Glatz’s article, Cardinal O’Malley and Commission Secretary Fr. Andrew Small discuss the challenges they face, especially in the area of training and maintaining infrastructure in developing countries. She writes (beginning with a quote from Cardinal O’Malley about the lack of training he received when he became a bishop):

“When I became a bishop almost 40 years ago, I was told, ‘You wear the ring on the right hand, you carry the crosier in the left hand’ and you were launched, I mean, that was it,” he said.

Since then, the church has spent decades establishing, refining and seeking to clarify and enforce universal norms, guidelines and procedures for the proper handling of abuse allegations, the care of victims and prevention.

However, he said, there is still a lot to be done to help several bishops’ conferences, particularly in the global South, make sure required safeguarding policies are up to date and implemented, and that new mandates, such as publicly accessible reporting and training centers, are working as they should.

And it is up to the commission with its new mandate “to certify the adequacy of prevention policies and procedures across the church, focusing on bishops’ conferences and those in religious life,” Oblate Father Andrew Small, commission secretary, told CNS Jan. 9, when asked to provide further details about the commission’s new work.

The cardinal said the commission’s members are now divided into four regional groups: Europe, Asia-Oceania, Africa and the Americas. Father Small said this is “to ensure safeguarding practices that are culturally adapted. But instead of just presenting a series of requirements as in the past, the commission will help build capacity in those parts of the world where resources are scarce.”

For that reason, a series of “Memorare Centers” will be set up with the help of the pontifical commission, the cardinal said. About $5 million has been pledged from donors to fund these centers to help with training and capacity-building so that bishops’ conferences and religious congregations needing assistance can implement the church’s safeguarding mandates.

Read it all for further insights into the work of the Pontifical Commission on the Protection of Minors, including specific projects and tasks, as well as the hurdles they must overcome.

Image: Cardinal O’Malley. (Photo credit: George Martell/The Pilot Media Group) Posted under a Creative Commons No-Deriv Attribution license.

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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