Pope Francis today named Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston and seven other figures with reputations as reformers to guide a new Vatican anti-abuse commission, a move intended to demonstrate resolve about confronting the child sexual abuse scandals that have rocked Catholicism.
O’Malley, already the lone American on the pope’s “G8” council of cardinal advisers, is also the lone American among the commission members announced today. O’Malley’s new responsibility is not a full-time position, meaning he will not move to Rome and will continue to serve as the Archbishop of Boston.
The lineup for the new “Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors” includes Irish lay woman Marie Collins, who has said she was raped at the age of 13 by a hospital chaplain. When she tried to report the abuse years later, she has said, she was told by church officials that “protecting the good name” of the priest was more important than remedying a “historical” wrong.
Collins has acquired an international reputation as a campaigner for the rights of abuse victims.
The pope tapped three clergy and five laity, including four women. The members come from eight different countries, with seven from Europe or the United States.
In announcing the appointments, a Vatican spokesman said they reflect the late Pope John Paul II’s statement that “there is no place in the priesthood or religious life for those who would harm the young.”
In a sign of personal interest, Pope Francis also named a fellow Argentinian and Jesuit priest, the Rev. Humberto Miguel Yáñez, who was received by the future pope into the Jesuit order in 1975 and who studied under him at an Argentine Jesuit college.
Yáñez today heads the moral theology department at the Jesuit-run Gregorian University in Rome, and is seen as having direct access to the pontiff.
The other members announced today are:
-- The Rev. Hans Zollner, a German Jesuit who is the academic vice rector of Gregorian University and head of its Institute of Psychology. Zollner coordinated a major anti-abuse conference in Rome in 2012 called “Toward Healing and Renewal.”
-- Hanna Suchocka, a former prime minister of Poland and former Polish ambassador to the Vatican.
-- Claudio Papale, an Italian lay expert on church law who teaches at Rome’s Pontifical Urbaniana University.
-- Catherine Bonnet, a French child psychologist who has written widely on the effects of sexual abuse and exploitation on children.
-- Baroness Sheila Hollins, a former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and current president of the British Medical Association who is frequently consulted on child development issues in the United Kingdom.
On background, sources told the Globe that Francis chose not to issue a legal document providing a structure and mandate for the new commission, preferring to allow the people he has put in charge to work out those details. The initial group announced today will also make recommendations for additional members to the pope “from various geographical regions of the world.”
In part, sources told the Globe, the initial selections are top-heavy with Europeans in order to make it easier for them to meet and get up to speed quickly.
Pope Francis did not name a formal leader for the new commission, with sources telling the Globe that he prefers to allow the commission’s members to make their own decision about who will coordinate their work.
While plans originally called for the anti-abuse body to be housed within the Vatican’s powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, today’s announcement suggests it will have a more independent profile reporting directly to the pope.
The announcement comes at a time when Francis had been facing mounting criticism for a perceived blind spot on the abuse scandals.
In early March, the pontiff gave an interview to an Italian newspaper in which he seemed defensive about criticism of the church’s record, saying it “is perhaps the lone public institution to have moved with transparency and responsibility . . . yet the church is the only one to have been attacked.”
Just days later, the American advocacy group BishopAccountability.org released records purporting to show that the future pope had failed to act aggressively on five cases involving alleged abuser priests in Argentina, though only one of those priests was actually ever under his direct authority.
Sources told the Globe that Francis took a direct interest in the makeup of the anti-abuse commission, personally phoning subordinates in the Vatican to work out the timing of the announcement.
O’Malley declined a Globe request to speak about his role on the commission beyond what was in the Vatican announcement. In an early February interview with the Globe, however, O’Malley discussed the commission and Francis’s broader approach to the abuse crisis.
“He’s certainly aware of how serious this issue is,” O’Malley said of the new pope at that time. “I don’t think he has a plan yet for how to deal with it.”
O’Malley suggested that one important function of the new commission might be working with national-level conferences of bishops around the world to ensure they have all implemented anti-abuse guidelines.
The aim of that effort, he said, is “to have some clarity about what the expectations are throughout the world.”
O’Malley also suggested that the commission might be able to make progress on what many critics charge is the most serious piece of unfinished business from the crisis, which is holding bishops accountable if they fail to apply the church’s official “zero tolerance” policy.
Those critics point, for instance, to Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Mo., who pleaded guilty in September 2012 to a misdemeanor charge of failure to report a priest accused of abuse and yet remains in office.
“I hope this commission will help the church develop protocols, so there will be a very clear path to follow” in such cases, O’Malley said. He added that it would likely not be the commission’s job to investigate individual cases, but rather to help develop procedures the pope can apply when charges arise that a bishop has failed to respond appropriately.
The new commission is expected to meet two or three times a year, with members staying in touch by phone and e-mail in the meantime.