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Effort to define safeguarding body has been 'slow'

The papal commission to protect minors began in 2014 as an independent body that reported directly to the pope
Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley gestures towards the audience during St. Patrick's Day Mass at a church in Boston on March 17, 2020

Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley gestures towards the audience during St. Patrick's Day Mass at a church in Boston on March 17, 2020. (Photo Archdiocese of Boston)

Published: May 13, 2023 05:10 AM GMT
Updated: May 13, 2023 05:21 AM GMT

The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors has been trying to define more clearly its relationship with the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, but those efforts have been "slow," said its president, Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley of Boston.

"Draft statutes for the commission were submitted to the Secretariat of State late last year reflecting the new mandate" of the commission, he told commission members May 4, opening their plenary assembly in Rome. The commission published his address on its website at tutelaminorum.org May 12.

While the Secretariat of State sent comments on the draft statutes earlier this year, they "offered little by way of substantive clarity on the nature of the working relationship between the DDF and the commission," the cardinal said.

Pope Francis' 2022 apostolic constitution, "Praedicate Evangelium," on the reform of the Roman Curia placed the papal commission "within" the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

What the Secretariat of State has been clear about, Cardinal O'Malley said, is "that the commission does not enjoy the standing or status or jurisdiction afforded to a dicastery and is, therefore, a lesser body in the Curia (in) terms of standing and jurisdiction and rights to share in the governance functions of the Curia."

The cardinal said that means the topic of safeguarding is "absent from meetings of the Roman Pontiff with the heads of dicasteries as well as absent from the meetings and activities at the inter-dicasterial level."

"This seems like a serious lacuna and one that was not envisaged by discussions on the new constitution that took place at the C9," he said, referring to the pope's international Council of Cardinals, which assisted the pope in studying the Curia and made recommendations for the apostolic constitution. Cardinal O'Malley has been a member of the Council of Cardinals since it was established in 2013, president of the safeguarding commission since it was established in 2014, and a member of the then-Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 2017.

In his address to the safeguarding commission, the cardinal said that "the vital link with the DDF seems to be a wise one" and "could be very fruitful" considering that it is very common in civil society to place "the work of prevention alongside the work of discipline."

"However, the equality of the two entities must be maintained for several reasons, not least of which the commission should never have been seen to be subject to and therefore involved in the discipline or justice system of the church," he said.

The commission had begun in 2014 as an independent body that reported directly to the pope to advise him on effective policies for the protection of minors and vulnerable adults, and for education programs in safeguarding.

An early draft of the apostolic constitution for the reform of the Curia had reportedly kept the commission as an "autonomous institution" with "special faculties" given by the pope to its president and secretary to have the authority of the Holy See to serve bishops' conferences and religious superiors in developing and implementing guidelines.

Throughout the commission's first decade, the cardinal told members, there had been consistent questions about "its unclear mandate, its standing in the Curia and its proper authority to bring about change within the church."

In 2021, he began "a period of evaluation of its strengths and weaknesses, with a view to the new beginning offered by the apostolic constitution, 'Praedicate Evangelium.' This was a time to correct some of the earlier design flaws and respond to some of these earlier frustrations while building a more incisive plan moving forward," he said.

The pope's decision to place the commission "within" the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith "was subject to criticism from observers who claimed the commission would become under the control of the DDF" and jeopardize its independence, the cardinal said. But "this fear has been firmly put aside by frequent indications from the Holy Father guaranteeing the independence of the commission from any oversight of the DDF."

Pope Francis has called on the commission and the DDF "to collaborate to produce a working relationship" and, the cardinal said, "there has been collaboration on the new guidelines mandate given to the commission with the DDF transferring all its archives in this regard, which is undergoing close analysis by our staff."

"However, overall efforts at defining this relationship in this regard have been slow," he added.

"Last year the commission drafted a working relationship agreement and submitted it to the DDF," Cardinal O'Malley said. While no formal response to the proposal has been received, he said the doctrinal dicastery's leadership believes its relationship will be defined only by the commission's statutes, which were still in a draft stage and received from the Secretariat of State "little by way of substantive clarity on the nature of the working relationship between the DDF and the commission."

Cardinal O'Malley's lengthy address covered the many changes made within the commission since the Curia reform was enacted and since receiving an expanded mandate during recent audiences with Pope Francis. He also addressed some of the criticisms and calls for clarity about its work, funding and staffing.

At the heart of the current commission's mandate, he said, "is its responsibility to assist church entities in adopting and adhering to sound policies and procedures, known as guidelines," which had been the task of the doctrinal congregation since 2011 "and briefly under the auspices of the Secretariat of State."

The commission will focus on "three legs of the safeguarding stool," he said: helping to turn advice into action through the guidelines; assisting where there are gaps with the "Memorare" program to "help build capacity, especially in the global South where the needs remain great"; and compiling an annual report to provide "transparency and accountability showing progress made and challenges that remain."

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