In the middle of next week, the Pope's new child protection commission will meet for the first time in Rome. It is larger, younger and more international. In addition, it is to have an advisory board composed of victims.
On the occasion of Pope Francis' fifth anniversary in mid-March, the media often focused on the topics of curia reform and a slow approach to dealing with abuse. The fact that this topic only made headlines in the sports and film world seven years after it became known and the Catholic Church began to come to terms with it is less noticed.
Not that everything is going smoothly in dealing with the scandal in the church. But at least others – for example, government representatives in New Zealand and Australia – are certainly asking for the church's experience on how best to tackle the problem.
Commission with new members
On 19. April now the pontifical child protection commission meets in Rome for the first time in new occupation. It had its first phase of work from 2014 to 2017. As before, the committee will be led by Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, a member of the K9 Council of Cardinals, which advises the pope on the reform of the Curia. The renewed commission consists of a total of 16 people, nine of them newly appointed – among them victims of sexual violence.
Whether those affected will come forward as such is an open question. Whether it is at all advisable for victims themselves to participate in such a commission is a matter of debate. For this reason, there should also be an advisory board made up of people affected by abuse.
This is put together by the British psychiatrist Sheila Hollins, who belonged to the first commission. Possibly there will be a meeting of members of the commission and the advisory board already before the beginning of the meeting.
Overall, the new body is younger – which improves its knowledge of the digital world – and more international. For the first time, India and the Portuguese-speaking world will be represented. Also on the panel are Ernesto Caffo, director of the Italian children's emergency hotline "Telefono Azzurro," and Benyam Dawit Mezmur, a child rights expert from the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Ethiopia.
Also newly appointed were the Dutch professor of canon law in Erfurt, Myriam Wijlens, the abuse representative of the Catholic Church in Australia, Neville John Owen, the founder of the drug rehab center Fazenda da Esperanca in Brazil, Nelson Giovanelli Rosendo, as well as Teresa Kettelkamp, former director of the child protection office of the U.S. bishops' conference.
German psychologist and theologian Hans Zollner, director of the Child Protection Center at the Pontifical Gregorian University, founded in 2012, has been a member of the commission since 2014. The Jesuit has held more than 250 training sessions, some lasting several days, on every continent in the past three years. In the meantime, he says, awareness of the problem is so great that he receives more requests than he and his team can fulfill.
The 51-year-old can understand some of the criticism that progress is slow in some areas. What surprises him are false expectations.
According to the statute, it is not the task of the commission to deal with cases of abuse or even to condemn perpetrators. In addition, there are ecclesiastical courts and the disciplinary department of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with corresponding laws and procedures. "The ecclesiastical criminal law is there at the level of legislation, for example, in the Federal Republic of Germany," Zollner emphasizes.
The task of the child protection commission is rather to advise the pope as head of the universal church. Its field of activity, in addition to contact with those affected, extends primarily to initiatives and ways to protect minors in the ecclesial space.
Secondly, the aim is to improve and apply church guidelines on prevention and intervention, and thirdly, to inform and train those in positions of responsibility. When newly appointed bishops come to Rome, for example, their training program now always includes a unit on child protection.
The commission will probably meet twice a year in Rome.
"Each of us has quite a few other tasks," Zollner points out of the limited time budget of the commission members. Which individual working groups there will be and when they will meet regionally, if necessary – all this is to be discussed next week in Rome.