After decades of Vatican indifference and evasion, Pope Francis has ordered the creation of a commission to study the rape and intimidation of schoolchildren by priests and to recommend measures for effective reform. The new commission, long overdue, will be composed of international experts, both lay and religious, reflecting the global scope of the scandal. Its task is to propose concrete recommendations for firmer safeguarding of schoolchildren and better training of Roman Catholic priests.
The hallmark of the new pope has been a refreshing resolve to shake up Vatican intransigence, but Francis has a way to go to reassure Catholics, particularly parents, that a firmer hand will in fact produce credible reform. His new initiative, for instance, offers no guarantee that he will deal with a major dynamic in the scandal by ordering greater accountability from diocesan prelates, many of whom ran systematic cover-ups of the criminal abuse of children. Catholics, including the non-offending majority of clergy members, are entitled to clear progress on this.
Francis’s call for the commission came just days after Vatican officials rebuffed a request from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child for details on how the church handled the scandal. The officials said the problem was primarily the responsibility of individual bishops and of local criminal justice authorities.
It is notable that the commission proposal originated with a new group of eight cardinals — the Council of Cardinals — appointed by Pope Francis to come up with timely reform proposals; he immediately accepted the idea. Few details were offered on how the study commission would proceed. But one of the eight council members, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, said that in addition to lay experts, priests, nuns and parents would be involved in the effort and that the pope was particularly concerned with the “pastoral response” of the church.
A comparable study panel of laity and clergy was created over a decade ago by the American hierarchy to report on the abuse of schoolchildren in the United States, a scandal in which 700 priests had to be dismissed in a three-year period. The panel’s pointed recommendation was that “there must be consequences” for diocesan leaders who shielded offending priests from criminal prosecution and authorized hush money to victims. But no effective mechanism to make powerful diocesan offenders accountable was devised by the bishops, and only a few diocesan leaders faced criminal investigation.
With the world now fascinated by the new pope, Francis has placed his reputation on the line in choosing to confront the problem more openly, rather than burying it once more in one of the maws of the Vatican bureaucracy.