Pope Francis has announced the renewal of the Church’s panel tasked with combating sexual abuse of children, in the wake of a fresh controversy.
The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors is made up of eight men and eight women – nine of which are new members.
Its original three-year mandate expired in December.
In recent weeks, Pope Francis has been under fire for his defence of a bishop accused of witnessing sexual abuse.
During his trip to Chile in January, he told journalists that in the case of Bishop Juan Barros: “There is not a single piece of proof against him. Everything is slander. Is this clear?”
His remarks offended some of the victims of Fernando Karadima. They said Bishop Barros was present while Karadima molested them decades ago – and did nothing.
Karadima was relieved of his duties by the Vatican in 2011 – but Juan Barros was installed as a bishop in 2015, amid protests.
The pope later apologised for the tone of his answer, saying he felt “pain and shame” – while maintaining he did not have enough evidence to “convict” Bishop Barros. He was met by protesters in Santiago.
The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors (PCPM) was also involved in that scandal.
Some of its members said they had handed a letter – from a victim, with concrete accusations and details – to the Pope’s top adviser on the issue.
The adviser – Cardinal Sean O’Malley, head of the PCPM – has been re-appointed to the role in the renewed panel announced Saturday.
In a statement, the Vatican said that the resurrected PCPM would begin its work by “listening to and learning from people who have been abused”.
“The PCPM wishes to hear the voices of victims/survivors directly, in order that the advice offered to the Holy Father be truly imbued with their insights and experiences,” it said, referring to the Pope.
It also said that victims of abuse numbered among the members.
However, the PCPM’s previous incarnation also counted abuse victims among its members – which resulted in two high-profile resignations.
Marie Collins, an Irish survivor of abuse who was molested at age 13, left the panel in March 2017 over “stumbling blocks and hindrances” which she said had obstructed the group’s purpose.
After the announcement of the panel’s new members, she tweeted: “Why not reappoint willing members and let them return to the important projects they had been working on…. instead new people starting from scratch!”
British member Peter Saunders was also deeply critical of the PCPM, and took a “leave of absence” after other members took a vote of no confidence against him, reportedly finding him “difficult”.