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An expanded Commission for an expanded mandate

Fr. Andrew Small, O.M.I., Secretary pro tempore of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, highlights the Vatican's efforts through the expanded Commission, to ensure the safeguarding and protection of minors.

By Fr. Andrew Small, O.M.I

On September 30, 2022, Pope Francis appointed ten new members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. With the ten members reappointed from the previous one, there are now 20 experts on the Commission, which, led by the President and Secretary, constitutes an important locus within the Roman Curia for the protection of minors and the broader safeguarding program.

In March of this year, Pope Francis added the Commission to the central structures of Church governance by virtue of the Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia, Praedicate Evangelium, placing it within the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. Since the Holy Father is committed to preserving the autonomy of the Commission, it will continue to be headed by a President appointed by the Pope.

It was essential to the Holy Father that the Commission, in terms of its placement within the Curia and the DDF, would maintain its independence as an advisory body to the Pope, with access to the bodies that exercise leadership within the Church and with the mandate to oversee the adequacy of the Church's policies and procedures in the area of abuse prevention and safeguarding.

The Commission and the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith

"Your close collaboration with the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith and the other Dicasteries should enrich your work, while your work can in turn enrich that of the Curia and the local Churches. I leave it to the Commission and the Dicastery, to the Dicasteries, to determine the most effective ways for this to happen. Working together, these implement concretely the Church's duty to protect all those for whom she is responsible." (Pope Francis, April 29, 2022)

The Holy Father determined that close collaboration between the Commission and the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith was essential for the Commission's work in the future. He acknowledged the concerns of Commission members and others that the placement at the Dicastery could undermine the autonomy of the PCTM. For this reason, the Commission, while being part of the Dicastery, will continue to be led by a President Delegate, appointed by the Pope and reporting directly to the Pontiff. And decisions regarding the personnel, the members of the Commission, as well as the proposals it produces, will remain independent of the Dicastery. Pope Francis has been very clear that the independent voices of the members of the Commission and those it serves should not be compromised.

However, why did Pope Francis decide that the DDF was the most appropriate body to receive it? First, the Holy Father knows that it is important that the Commission, with its focus on protection and safeguarding, is as close as possible to the Dicastery that deals with the discipline and administration of justice. In his February motu proprio, "Fidem servare," Pope Francis restructured the DDF into two sections, Doctrinal and Disciplinary, each with its own Secretary who assists the Prefect for his area of expertise. In lay terms, Pope Francis is engaging in a process of law reform common to many jurisdictions in search of increasing legitimacy. In other words, he is modifying current legal processes to make them more efficient. As in other legal systems, prevention goes hand in hand with the prosecution of crimes.

Second, stressing the importance of making law enforcement an efficient process and by establishing this closeness between the Commission and the disciplinary section of the Dicastery, the Holy Father has expanded the possibilities of access to the justice system, and although the Commission does not and will not have competence in handling cases, it will have a role in access to justice. In fact, the Holy Father in his address asked the members of the Commission "to propose better methods to enable the Church to protect minors and vulnerable people and to assist the healing of survivors, recognizing that justice and prevention are complementary."

Prioritizing the role and assistance to victims/survivors

"It is your responsibility to expand the scope of this mission [of the Commission] such that the protection and care of those who have been abused becomes a norm in every area of Church life. [...] I urge you to work diligently and courageously to make known these wounds, to seek out those who suffer from them, and to recognize in these people the witness of our suffering Savior. For the Church knows the Risen Lord to the extent that She follows Him as the suffering Servant. This is the road we all must travel: bishops, religious superiors, priests, deacons, consecrated persons, catechists and lay faithful. Each member of the Church, according to his or her status, is called to take responsibility for preventing cases of abuse and to work for justice and healing. (Pope Francis, April 29, 2022)."

Since its inception, the Commission has been dedicated to caring for victims/survivors, with openness to learning from their experiences and incorporating them into its own work. This aspect of the mandate of the PCTM was emphasized by Pope Francis in his audience to the Commission in April 2022:  "It is your task to expand the scope of this mission so that the protection and care of people who have suffered abuse becomes the norm in every area of the Church's life."

The effective realization of this commitment is also seen in the presence of survivors among the members of the Commission since its establishment.

Through this, the commission highlighted the importance of leadership training for the church in accompaniment with the aim of remedying a deficiency, often reported by victims/survivors regarding initial disclosure experiences regarding abuse. Important was what emerged from the work of the Survivors Advisory Panels (SAPs), promoted by the Commission with the intention of identifying content and ways to organically include the voices and experiences of victims and survivors within the protection and care policies of churches.

Commission members and staff have always been an important point of contact and of engagement with victims/survivors and their representatives, through the receipt of reports and complaints, often also sent to the Commission from other Dicasteries of the Curia. The systematic inclusion in a protocol dedicated to such correspondences by staff in the Vatican has been a valuable source of reflection from the issues contained in the communications, converging in recommendations offered to the Holy Father and in activities and initiatives of the Commission, such as seminars and study groups.


"Policies are of little use if they are not put into practice, guidelines are ineffective if there is no solid training for and by those responsible for their implementation. And none of this will result in a credible prevention mechanism if there is no transparency in reporting and if there are no consequences for failures. This is the future that Pope Francis has asked his Commission to help bring about, and I look forward to leading these efforts." (Card. Sean O'Malley, President PCTM, Press Release, Sept. 30, 2022)

The Holy Father gave the Commission a further clarified mandate: to oversee the guidelines. According to Article 78(2) of the Apostolic Constitution Praedicate Evangelium, the Commission was mandated to collaborate with the Bishops' Conferences, Dioceses and Religious Orders to ensure the effectiveness of the safeguarding guidelines, with special attention to the prevention of abuse (a 2011 mandate from the then Congregation for the Doctrine of the

Faith by which Episcopal Conferences were required to draft them). Although almost all of the 114 Bishops' Conferences around the world have drafted and presented a set of guidelines, there remains the important question of their effectiveness and verification, both of which are essential when dealing with the protection of minors.

This oversight function will be expressed through a process in which the Commission will review and offer feedback on the adequacy of the adoption and implementation of the requirements of the law by each local church. It is evident that ad limina visits represent a key moment for dialogue and mutual engagement between the Commission and local churches on these fundamental issues.

Pope Francis then directed the Commission to assume two additional responsibilities, fundamental to the Church's overall safeguarding project: the establishment of mechanisms for the reporting throughout the Church for those who have been abused, and the drafting for the Holy Father of an Annual Report on safeguarding in the Church, drawn from the experience of implementing a broader safeguarding program.

Implementation of Article 2 of Vos Estis Lux Mundi (VELM)

I have followed with interest the way the Commission, since its inception, has offered opportunities to listen and meet with victims and survivors. You have been of great help in my pastoral mission to all those who have turned to me as a result of their painful experiences. For this reason, I urge you to assist the bishops' conferences-this is very important: to assist and supervise in dialogue with the bishops' conferences - in establishing suitable centers where people who have been abused, and their families, can find welcome and listening, and be accompanied in a process of healing and justice, as indicated in Motu Proprio Vos Estis Lux Mundi (see Art. 2).

This effort will also be an expression of the synodal nature of the Church, of the communion and subsidiarity. Let us not forget the meeting we had almost three years ago with the presidents of the bishops' conferences. They must establish the necessary commissions and means to implement healing processes for people who have been abused, with all the methods they have, and to punish the abusers. And you must oversee all this. I urge you, please. (Pope Francis, April 29 April 2022).

The mandate to establish churchwide reporting mechanisms for those who have suffered abuse was first codified in the 2019 Motu proprio, Vos Estis Lux Mundi, Article 2. The document, which was published shortly after the meeting of Church leaders in Rome in February 2019, presided over by the Holy Father, follows up on what emerged during the work, in line with the priorities indicated during the meeting by participants, particularly survivors and the associations representing them. The Pope instructed the Commission to oversee the implementation of these procedures through assistance and communication with Church leaders. The Commission is developing a strategic plan to ensure the implementation of this requirement of VELM in the spirit of the new Apostolic Constitution Praedicate Evangelium, which indicates how the Curia should be at the service of local churches in a purposeful way. Therefore, the organizational structure of the PCTM will reflect such a synodal approach, characterized by dialogue and mutual reinforcement.

Following this renewed mandate, the Commission will promote local churches in building capacity to ensure that local development of the resources needed for this specific type of pastoral services is facilitated. Addressing the lack of church capacity in developing countries is a critical priority, because the disparity in child sexual abuse training and prevention between the northern and southern hemispheres recalls the urgency of church collaboration in wealthier countries to remedy the huge inequality in safeguarding services between the global north and south.

Precisely with a view to more incisive collaboration in combating the evil of abuse, the Italian Bishops' Conference and the Commission are entering into an agreement to exchange regular updates on initiatives put in place at the national and universal level, but also to share expertise and professionalism so as to create a global network of Centers for the reception, listening and healing of victims, modeled on the international standards developed by the Commission and what has been implemented in Italian dioceses. So that this attention is extended to all countries, especially developing ones, the CEI has provided funding, for a period of three years, to support the Commission in carrying out its work of building strong safeguarding mechanisms in the Global South. Hopefully, this significant commitment of the CEI, coming from the 8×1000 contributions that the Church in Italy uses to support developing countries, can be complemented by future aid from other Episcopal Conferences.

The Annual Report on Safeguarding in the Church

I would like you to prepare for me each year a report on the Church's initiatives for the protection of minors and vulnerable adults. This may be difficult at first, but I ask you to begin where necessary, to provide a reliable account of what is currently being done and what needs to change, so that the relevant authorities can act. This report will be a factor of transparency and accountability and - I hope - will provide a clear verification of our progress in this effort. (Pope Francis, April 29, 2022).

This Annual Report will detail the nature and adequacy of policies and safeguarding procedures throughout the Church, as well as their implementation and effectiveness. It will assess the care and accompaniment of victims/survivors by the Church and will provide feedback and general guidance on best practices throughout the Church. Although the commission does not deal with individual cases, the Annual Report will provide information on issues such as: the countries and dioceses in which safeguarding guidelines have been implemented, whether these guidelines conform to acceptable standards, how recently they have been revised, and where they have not yet been implemented.

This Annual Report can become a vital tool to help strengthen the credibility of the Church's efforts in addressing sexual abuse. If it serves as the main meeting point between the Commission and the church entities it seeks to engage, it will help to assess the progress being made in the Church's development of those processes and programs that ensure the protection of minors and vulnerable persons, and the care of the victims/survivors. The Report will foster systematic communication of the effective reception and implementation by the churches of the Pope's vision; particularly with regard to the Commission's now expanded churchwide agenda.

A second role such a Report can play is to help prove the effectiveness of reforms in policies and practices in use in the Church. Changes and improvements have been made globally, but many remain unknown or invisible. By tracking this progress, the Report can contribute to a greater degree of confidence in the Church's ability to effectively protect children, carry out its evangelizing mission, and promote a culture of care, ensuring justice and reconciliation.

Furthermore, it is hoped that an Annual Report will provide a degree of transparency and accountability that is so urgent in the area of protection and abuse management: the Annual Report can provide an important point of encounter and dialogue with all the departments that participate in some way in the implementation of safeguarding and in child protection. For example, the Report can assist and inform the work of the curial bodies responsible for establishing guidelines on ministry as part of the priestly formation program.

To facilitate ongoing dialogue with other entities within the Curia in a clear and consistent manner, the Commission is discussing the development of a series of Memoranda for the exchange of information with the relevant Dicasteries. This series of agreements will provide a framework for the contents of the Annual Report, which will then be presented to the Holy Father who will decide on the form of its publication.

A synodal response

The whole Church is in crisis because of abuse; moreover, the Church cannot take a step forward now without accepting this crisis.

It is true that historical events must be evaluated with the hermeneutics of the time in which they happened. But this does not free us from the task of taking responsibility and accepting these events as the history of the "sin that afflicts us." That is why I believe that every bishop of the Church must accept this and ask himself: What should I do in the face of this catastrophe? The reform of the Church was carried out by men and women who were not afraid to expose themselves to the crisis and let the Lord reform them ... crying, and babbling as best we can that 'depart from me, for I am a sinner', the legacy that the first pope left to the popes and bishops of the Church." (Pope Francis, Response to Cardinal Reinhard Marx's letter of resignation, June 2021).

Charging the Commission to ensure adequate capacity to examine allegations of abuse and to care for the wounded, the Pope pointed to the dimension of synodality. He indicated that the effort to create accessible services for abuse allegations "will also be an expression of the synodal nature of the Church, its communion and subsidiarity."

This was the first time the Church's approach to sexual abuse was framed in terms of synodality. Defining this work from the perspective of communion and subsidiarity, the Holy Father associated it with two fundamental concepts of the being and doing of the Church. Pope Francis places the concept of subsidiarity within the ecclesiastical principle according to which the role of the Church's central governing structures is to be at the service of the local churches. This service is not optional. The commission is not simply a consultant, stepping in when things are not going well: overseeing the operation of effective services of safeguarding at all levels of church leadership is an expression of the oversight of Peter, who presides in charity with concern for the whole Church.

The preparatory documents of the synod emphasized the importance of listening to the victims/survivors, and Pope Francis gave preeminent status to issues related to abuse. However, the weight and significance actually given to the experiences of the victims/survivors of clergy sexual abuse in the synod process are still painfully unclear and the testimonies of victims/survivors have so far been limited. The impact of their experiences and insights is difficult to discern.

If dialogue is the conjunction between communion and subsidiarity in the Church, then Peter is the conjunction between crisis and reform. If the whole Church implements this vision of communion according to the Pope's vision for the Commission, it can become an authentic community, in which each member plays his or her distinctive role. In this vision, under the guidance of the Spirit, no one is excluded, and all are invited to participate in the life of the Church.

The Church as a symbol and mystery of communion can nourish the faith of God's people and motivate the faithful to realize the fullness of the Church's presence in the world. The model of communion, characterized by subsidiarity and dialogue, is the key to solving difficult issues, such as the sexual abuse, which have no easy answers. It is the way forward for the People of God when they are faced with the long shadow cast by the Cross of Christ.

28 October 2022, 15:20