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Pope's sex abuse panel tells survivor to take a time-out

Pope Francis' sex abuse advisory committee voted to have Peter Saunders – a high-profile British advocate for survivors who had been critical of the church's slow response – leave the panel for now.

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Pope Francis leaves at the end of an audience with Saint Pio's faithful in St Peter’s Square, at the Vatican, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. Pope Francis' efforts to show that he's tough on clerical sex abuse suffered a blow Saturday after his advisory committee voted to have a high-profile survivor leave the panel.

Alessandra Tarantino/AP

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Pope Francis' sex abuse advisory committee voted Saturday to temporarily sideline one of its members, a high-profile abuse survivor who had clashed with the commission over its mission.

Peter Saunders, a British advocate for survivors, had been highly critical of the Vatican's slow pace of progress in taking measures to protect children and punish bishops who covered up for pedophile priests. He has also insisted the pope's commission was not just crafting long-term policies to fight abuse but also should intervene immediately in individual cases.

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During a commission meeting Saturday, "it was decided that Mr. Peter Saunders would take a leave of absence from his membership to consider how he might best support the commission's work," the Vatican said in a statement.

The decision is a blow to Francis' efforts to show that he is tough on abuse, since the presence of Saunders and another abuse survivor, Marie Collins, had given the commission credibility.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Saunders said commission members asked him to step aside after concluding they could no longer trust him to work within the scope of the commission's mandate.

"The commission members took a vote and apart from one abstention they agreed that they could no longer continue to work with me," Saunders said. "I do not want to prevent the work of the commission, the good work that the commission is doing from going ahead, so I had no choice but to step aside."

His departure leaves just one other abuse survivor on the commission, which was formed in 2013 to advise the Vatican on protecting children, educating church personnel and parishioners about abuse, and keeping pedophiles out of the priesthood.

The commission was formed after victims' groups questioned whether the Argentine pope, who had never dealt with an abuse case, really understood the scope of the scandal in the church. But the commission took a big step last year when it successfully proposed that the Vatican create an in-house tribunal to hear cases of bishops accused of failing to protect their flocks.

The lack of bishop accountability has prompted years of criticism from abuse victims, advocacy groups and others that the Vatican had failed to punish or forcibly remove bishops who moved predator priests from parish to parish, where they could rape again, rather than report them to police or remove them from ministry.

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The Vatican has released no information about the progress in the tribunal's work so far.

The commission in general, and Saunders in particular, had been highly critical of Francis' decision to appoint a Chilean bishop despite allegations from abuse survivors that he had covered up for the country's most notorious pedophile. The bishop denied the charge and Francis stood by the appointment.

The commission has stressed that its mission is not to intervene in individual cases but to craft policy guidelines for the church.