Saunders’s departure from abuse commission helps resolve body’s identity crisis

Peter Saunders, a British advocate for survivors, talks during an interview with the Associated Press in Rome, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. 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 mandate and mission. During a meeting of the commission 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. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

[Austen Ivereigh in Bogotá] The Vatican’s announcement yesterday that a British abuse survivor and activist will be leaving Pope Francis’s child protection commission is, of course, sad news. But it was also inevitable, the fruit of tensions over the commission’s identity that have been present within it since its inception.

According to a brief Vatican statement, the 17 expert members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors took a unanimous decision (with one abstention) that that Peter Saunders should take a “leave of absence”.

Saunders was invited to join the body in December 2014 after meeting Pope Francis earlier that year (see CV Comment here).The Commission, which meets twice a year in Rome, includes psychiatrists and therapists and experts of various kinds, and is presided by Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the Archbishop of Boston.

Its brief, which was never well defined at first, is to assist the Vatican in developing guidelines and policies for tackling abuse in the worldwide Church, helping to translate best practices developed by the Church in Europe and the US to the developing world. It is not a platform for survivor groups to campaign against the Church, but a policy-making body to assist the Pope.

Saunders, however, soon began exploiting his high-profile role to campaign for action to be taken on specific cases, notoriously accusing Cardinal George Pell, who heads the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, of being a sociopath (See CV Comment here), and recently telling The Times that unless Pope Francis sacked a bishop in Chile accused of complicity in abuse, the Commission would be a “laughing stock”. (For background on the Chilean bishop, see my article for National Catholic Reporter here).

Yet the Commission has repeatedly made clear — and explicitly in June last year (see CV Comment here) that commission members should not publicly comment on individual cases, an agreed position that Saunders continually ignored. The result was that the Commission had great difficulty in being known for anything other than Saunders’s remarks.

Saunders continually expressed frustration to the media at inaction on individual cases. Yet he and the other commission members had direct access to the person tasked with investigating those cases, Fr Robert Oliver, the Promoter of Justice in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), who is also the Commission’s secretary. In the two cases he continually raised — Pell and Barros — the accusations he made are denied, and have been (or are again) in the process of being investigated by judicial authorities.

Ultimately, the issue became one of accountability. The Commission is a Vatican body, funded by the Church, which is answerable — as are all Vatican bodies — to the Pope, not to pressure groups or lobbies outside the Church. Yet Saunders saw himself as representing those survivors’ organisations, and appeared in Rome for commission meetings alongside their representatives. Yesterday, for example, he spoke to the press alongside Juan Carlos Cruz, a bitter critic of Bishop Barros.

In contrast, the remaining abuse survivor on the commission, Marie Collins, who unlike Saunders has been on it since it was first set up, has been careful not to exploit her position to campaign on individual cases. (See her interview with NCR).

Yesterday’s statement made clear that there could well be a body set up in the future to represent survivors groups’ views to the Commission. In such a case, the lines of accountability would be clear.

Although it is obviously a blow, Saunders’ departure comes as no surprise to anyone close to the Commission these past months. It frees Saunders to be what he does well — campaigning on behalf of survivors — and frees the Commission to get on with its vital policy work.

(See Crux, Reuters, & AP.)

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