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Pope appoints new anti-abuse group

by LAURIE GOODSTEIN and JIM YARDLEY, New York Times News Service on March 23, 2014 1:20 AM

Pope Francis on Saturday made his first appointments to a special commission intended to signal the Vatican’s new resolve in tackling the clerical sexual abuse problem, a group that includes an equal number of women and men, more laypeople than clergy and an outspoken Irish activist who was abused by a priest as a child.

In recent months, Francis has been criticized by advocacy groups for abuse victims, especially after an interview in which he strongly defended the Roman Catholic Church’s handling of the sexual abuse crisis.

Last month, a U.N. commission issued a stinging report on the church’s handling of abuse cases, and some advocacy groups have considered the pope’s appointments to the commission a telling signal of his commitment to combating the problem.

The eight names released Saturday suggested that Francis had deliberately shaken up the usual way of doing things at the Vatican: Four of the members are female, including Marie Collins, an Irish woman who was abused as a girl in the 1960s and later became a national activist to help other victims.

Collins said in a telephone interview that she was shocked when she learned of her appointment Friday, and felt “an enormous weight because there’s a lot of expectations for this commission, particularly from survivors.”

She said the commission’s priorities should include requiring dioceses to report abuse to civil authorities, responding to victims with a pastoral and not an adversarial legalistic approach, and holding bishops who covered up accountable.

“Until bishops who protected abusers are removed, it’s very hard to have confidence,” she said.

Among the three clergy members on the panel, the highest ranking is Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley of Boston, who has been a central figure in the church’s response on the issue in the United States.

The scope of the commission and suggestions for future members will be determined by the commission itself, said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman. Most of the members announced Saturday are from Europe and the United States, but the commission is expected to eventually include more people from developing nations, where the Catholic Church is growing most rapidly.

The other members on the commission are Dr. Catherine Bonnet of France; Sheila Hollins, a mental health specialist in Britain; Claudio Papale, a canon lawyer from Italy; Hanna Suchocka, a former ambassador to the Vatican from Poland; the Rev. Humberto Miguel Y£￱ez of Argentina; and the Rev. Hans Zollner of Germany.

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