Cardinal O’Malley: “moral obligation” trumps legal requirements on sex abuse

Boston Cardinal O’Malley speaks during a press conference at the Vatican Dec. 5. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY — Members of the new papal commission for protecting minors from sexual abuse spoke to reporters May 3, the third and last day of their first round of meetings at the Vatican.

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston was joined on stage at the briefing by fellow commission members Marie Collins and Jesuit Father Hans Zollner. The other five members sat with reporters in the audience.

Reading a statement on behalf of the entire commission, the cardinal said the members planned to draft statutes for approval by Pope Francis, to clarify the commission’s “nature, structure, activity and the goals.”

“It is clear, for example, that the commission will not deal with individual cases of abuse, but we can make recommendations regarding policies for assuring accountability and best practice,” the statement said.

Later, in response to a reporter’s question, the cardinal said such policies were necessary to fill gaps in existing church law.

“Our concern is to make sure that there are clear and effective protocols to deal with situations where superiors of the church have not fulfilled their obligations to protect children,” he said. “There are, theoretically I guess, canons that could apply here but obviously they have not been sufficient.”

Asked about a recent directive from the Italian bishops’ conference stating that bishops have no legal obligation to report accusations to the police or other civil authorities, Cardinal O’Malley said: “Obviously, accountability should not be dependent upon legal obligations in the country when we have a moral obligation.”

The commission announced its plans to nominate additional members for appointment by the pope. Cardinal O’Malley said preserving the commission’s independence required a strong presence of lay volunteers, and that sitting members hoped to be joined by more victim-survivors in addition to Collins.

The cardinal said adding geographical diversity to the commission — currently made up of six Europeans, a North American and a South American — was also a priority, largely to ensure that awareness of sex abuse extends to all parts of the church.

“In some people’s minds, ‘oh, this is an American problem, it’s an Irish problem, it’s a German problem,'” the cardinal said. “Well, it’s a human problem, and the church needs to face it everywhere in the world.”

Collins, one of four women on the commission, was molested by a priest at the age of 13. As an adult, she has worked with the Catholic Church in her native Ireland to improve child protection and help abuse victims.

Asked about the relevance to sex abuse of the Vatican’s scheduled May 5-6 appearance before a United Nations committee monitoring adherence to an anti-torture treaty, Collins said “many survivors would probably say their abuse was torture, but it’s an entirely different thing, a separate matter altogether from state-sponsored torture.”

The eight-member commission met at the Vatican guesthouse, where Pope Francis lives. The members met the pope on two occasions during their stay, once after a morning Mass and once for a photo opportunity, but he did not address them as a group or attend any of their sessions. The cardinal said he expected the pope to address the commission once all its members had been appointed.

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