Church-Abuse Survivors Accuse Vatican of Empty Promises

A member of its commission on protecting children was asked to take a leave of absence last weekend.

Peter Saunders talks during a news conference in Rome on Feb. 6. (Photo: Tony Gentile/Reuters)

Feb 9, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

The Vatican on Monday announced a new series of policies and projects following a weeklong assembly of a commission aimed at preventing child sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. But the ousting from the Pope Francis–appointed panel of one of its most outspoken members has cast doubt on its commitment to reform.

The Vatican's press statement did not mention its decision on Saturday to suspend Peter Saunders, a survivor of clergy abuse who had been enlisted to join the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Critics say the controversy, which comes amid widespread scrutiny of the appointment of a Chilean bishop accused of concealing abuse, is only the latest example of the church's continued need for increased accountability and external oversight.

"This notion that the church needs new policies and panels and procedures and protocols—it's really just smart PR, but it's also very, very, very disingenuous," said David Clohessy, a survivor of clergy abuse and founder of the national support and advocacy group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. The commission's efforts "on paper look great," he said. "It's just that they're never enforced."

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The church's initiatives include a proposal to "remind all authorities in the church of the importance of responding directly to victims and survivors who approach them" and the planning of a workshop later this year to establish more transparency around canonical trials. Pope Francis created the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in March 2014, a month after the United Nations accused the Catholic Church of failing to acknowledge the extent of its crimes. In a report issued by the U.N.'s Committee on the Rights of the Child, the international human rights organization urged the Vatican to report child abusers to law enforcement, expel them from their positions, and make its archives public to hold high-ranking abusers accountable for their crimes.

Saunders is known as a fierce critic of the church, and his appointment to the commission lent it a tremendous amount of credibility, said Anne Barrett Doyle, the codirector of the online archive "I was actually thinking, 'They might be this independent watchdog group,' " said Barrett Doyle, whose organization conducts research and tracks news related to the church's sex abuse scandal. "We never see members of the advisory commission of church panels speaking out against the church, so it was actually making them seem like the real deal."

The Vatican's decision to suspend Saunders may have shattered any illusion of progress in the eyes of its detractors. The Vatican announced Saturday that Saunders would "take a leave of absence from his membership to consider how he might best support the commission's work." The institution told reporters that the commission's members should not comment directly on specific cases of abuse, deferring to investigators instead. Barrett Doyle sees that as an inherent contradiction.

"To have a mission that prohibits the group from speaking about individual cases is to really limit its effectiveness," she said. "What is it supposed to do—create rules going forward in a vacuum without using real-life examples as the source for what must be avoided and what must be included in your rules?"

During a press conference Saunders organized on Saturday, he said he had no plans to leave his position on the commission. He suggested his ousting followed a dispute in which he advocated for the commission to become more transparent. "The response of the commission was that they want to remain in secret with discussions behind closed doors for reasons I am sure they are more than happy to share with you," he said. "But as I said, the reason the vile crime of abuse and rape of children persists is because too many people and too many institutions, including our church, [are] willing to brush these matters under the carpet and to try and silence anybody who wishes to speak out of such matters."

Saunders' removal from the commission is not the only point of contention for survivors and advocates seeking changes in the Catholic Church. Just a day after the Vatican asked Saunders to take a leave of absence, he and fellow clergy-abuse survivor Juan Carlos Cruz delivered letters to Pope Francis urging him to remove Bishop Juan Barros, whom he appointed in Osorno, Chile, last year. Barros has been accused of covering up abuse by Father Fernando Karadima, whom the Vatican sentenced in 2011 to "a life of prayer and penitence" for his longtime abuse of children, including Cruz when he was a teenager.

For survivors like Clohessy, bringing criminal charges against officials found guilty of abuse is key to creating meaningful change within the Catholic Church. "It sounds cynical, but priests maneuver and scheme and work for decades in order to become a bishop," he said, "and if they saw that position being yanked away from even a handful of their colleagues because they mishandled abuse, they would change their ways. But in fact, they see just the reverse."