Pope Francis on Thursday formed a committee to fight child sex abuse in the Catholic Church in a landmark initiative after thousands of abuses and cover-ups, but campaigners said the new body would be "toothless".
While the composition and precise tasks of the committee are yet to be established, the Vatican said it could vet future priests and establish codes of conduct and guidelines for responding to allegations. It could also propose ways of offering pastoral care to victims of abuse and look at ensuring greater cooperation between religious and lay investigators -- a key bone of contention in many of the abuse scandals.
The announcement was made by US cardinal Sean O'Malley, one of the eight members of a new council of cardinals set up by Francis to advise him and on whose recommendation the committee is being set up. O'Malley is also the archbishop of Boston, which is where the accusations of abuse by priests first surfaced more than a decade ago before spreading elsewhere in the United States and around the world.
"The Holy Father has decided to constitute a committee for the protection of children," O'Malley said at a Vatican press conference, adding that the make-up of the new body would be announced "in the near future". The cardinal stressed the importance of looking not only at legal procedures but also at the "pastoral response" and said education for clergymen "had helped a lot in prevention, in spotting the danger signs".
O'Malley said the council suggested the new committee on Wednesday and Francis approved it on Thursday, adding that the initiative was also in line with the zero tolerance approach of pope emeritus Benedict XVI. There was immediate support for the move in many parts of the Catholic world, with US priest and blogger Michael Duffy saying: "This is a big deal!"
In Italy, the Famiglia Cristiana weekly said it signalled a "crackdown" by the new pope. But the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a US campaign group, said the initiative was "meaningless" and just "a toothless church panel", arguing secular authorities should deal with clergy sex crimes. "It's like offering a band aid to an advanced cancer patient," SNAP director David Clohessy said.
"Only decisive action helps, not more studies and committees and promises," he added. The Vatican has said its Canon Law prosecutors are investigating thousands of alleged cases of abuse but it is unclear how many have been confirmed and what action has been taken against those found guilty. "The responsibilities of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will not change," the cardinal said, referring to the Vatican department that is responsible for investigating the abuses.
Religious officials and campaigners believe the scale of the abuses may be underestimated as victims have mainly been coming forward only in Western countries and there may be more cases in Africa and Asia. The Vatican on Wednesday said it could not respond to questions on the abuses from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, explaining that it was not legally responsible for individual churchmen because they are subject to national laws.
Vatican officials will however attend a meeting of the UN committee in Geneva on January 16 and O'Malley said that this "will help the Holy See demonstrate its desire to help". The committee is checking whether the Catholic Church is honouring the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The scandals -- many of them dating back decades -- have scarred the Roman Catholic Church worldwide and led to sharp drops in public confidence, including in predominantly Catholic countries like Ireland.