VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican commission advising Pope Francis on sexual abuse policy will develop "clear and effective protocols" to protect children from pedophile priests, including procedures to hold church authorities accountable if they neglect to act on cases of abuse, Vatican officials said Saturday.
The commission will advise the pope on adopting policies developed from the existing "best practices" for the protection of minors, which can be implemented worldwide. Recommendations to the pope will also include ways of better educating the clergy about the issue of child abuse and its devastating consequences.
"The protocols will address everyone," regardless of their status in the church, "and will provide clear ways of dealing with those who perpetrate the abuse, and those who were negligent in protecting children," Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston and one of the eight members of the commission, told reporters at a news briefing Saturday.
Existing canon laws had not adequately or sufficiently addressed this issue, Cardinal O'Malley, who grew up in the South Hills of Pittsburgh, acknowledged. "Our concern is to make sure that there are clear and effective protocols to deal with situations where people of the church did not fulfill their obligation to protect children," he said.
Advocacy groups have long harshly castigated the Vatican for refusing to systematically discipline clerics who covered up pedophilia crimes. Over the years, the church has adopted a series of measures to address the abuse of children by priests, but critics say that the Vatican has protected its reputation over the interests of the victims by refusing to sanction church officials.
Pope Francis announced the creation of the commission in December. It members include lay people -- among them psychiatrists, a canon lawyer for the Vatican congregation that handles sex abuse cases, a moral theologian and a woman who was a victim of sex abuse by a priest as a child, who has become an advocate for accountability in the church. Four of the eight members are women.
The pope "was anxious that the group be independent," Cardinal O'Malley said.
He said the commission would not deal with specific cases of child abuse, nor would the protocols necessarily relate to existing child abuse laws in specific countries. "Accountability should not be dependent on the legal obligations of a country, but upon moral considerations," he said.
The commission will make proposals to the pope, but Cardinal O'Malley said a specific time frame had not been decided upon. "The one thing that this meeting showed is how many issues there are to deal with and how complex they are," he said. Though the commission was established to advise the pope, it could also be "of service" to national bishops conferences. "Everyone is anxious to have positive results," he said.
The commission met for the first time last week at the Vatican to discuss its purpose, functions and goals, and to propose additional members, to be chosen on the basis of their expertise as well as their geographical provenance.
"The commission wants to make sure that in the future, the issue of child abuse will be addressed worldwide, not patchily, and adhering to the highest standards," said Marie Collins, the commission member from Ireland who was abused by a priest when she was 13.
Cardinal O'Malley said vigilance would be required. "The church needs to always be reviewing what we have done, trying to improve what we have done, monitoring what we have done because it's possible to have beautiful policies, but if they are not implemented it's only window dressing," he said.
"I know many survivors are hoping, that they have high expectations for what the commission will do," Ms. Collins said. "I can't make any concrete promises, but I am hopeful."