ROME — In his first formal response to one of the biggest challenges facing the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis is establishing a commission to look at how the church can better protect children from sexual abuse by its priests.
The group's formation was announced Thursday by Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston, and instantly denounced as inadequate by organizations representing victims of sex abuse by priests. At a Vatican news conference, O'Malley said the panel would look at pastoral responses to child abuse, not just judicial ones, but said it would be largely up to individual Catholic jurisdictions around the world to decide how to go about stopping the scourge and disciplining those responsible.
"The Holy See will try and be helpful and try and identify best practices," said O'Malley, who has been a church troubleshooter on sexual abuse in the United States. "But certainly we hope that the Holy See will be able to model what those best practices are, in a way of helping other dioceses and bishops' conferences to have a response that is truly adequate and pastoral to this problem."
O'Malley, who has forged a close bond with the new pope, announced the commission's creation after Francis met with the Council of Cardinals, a panel of eight cardinals he has chosen to reform the Vatican's top-heavy bureaucracy.
The cardinals discussed the concept of a commission Wednesday, and the pope agreed to it Thursday, O'Malley said. Members — to include priests, nuns and lay experts on the problem — were not immediately named.
The quick evolution of the commission suggested that the Vatican may have been responding to criticism of its recent responses to a U.N. committee asking about the church's implementation of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, and to the pope's comments to Dutch bishops about child sexual abuse. In both cases, the statements were criticized as bland and offering little new in the way of solutions to the problem. In response to the U.N., the Vatican said it was up to individual bishops to act, not the universal church.
In his first nine months as pope, Francis has won plaudits for reinvigorating the Catholic message, with a strong emphasis on helping the poor, and upgrading the image of the church. He has not, however, focused much attention on sexual abuse by priests, a problem that has seriously damaged the church's image in many countries and has cost it tens of millions of dollars in legal fees and settlements.
"Pope Francis has massive power and many options. But he's choosing to not use that power to protect children," David Clohessy, director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said Thursday.
"And he's choosing perhaps the least effective option to address a roiling crisis: another internal, quiet, cleric-dominated committee," Clohessy said in a statement.
He urged Francis to punish bishops found covering up for abusive priests. "This simple step would immediately make kids safer. But instead, parents and parishioners are being offered yet another toothless church panel," he said.
At O'Malley's news conference, the cardinal was asked whether the commission would look into ways of holding bishops accountable. "I don't know, and quite frankly that's something that the church needs to address," he said. "I'm not sure whether it will be this commission or the CDF [the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] or what?"
In April, a month after his election, Francis said that the Vatican needed to act decisively on abuse cases and that the Catholic Church's credibility was on the line.
O'Malley has previously been drafted to resolve crises in U.S. dioceses hit by abuse accusations. In a scandal that continues to unfold, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis said this week that it was planning to publish the names of accused priests.
Discussing the new commission, O'Malley said that the Vatican's involvement in the crisis had been mostly judicial to date and that Francis was pushing to add a pastoral response as well.
That, O'Malley said, might include spiritual and mental health assistance for victims of sexual abuse, as well as guidelines for child protection and programs for screening and training priests.
One Vatican expert, Father Thomas Reese, defined a pastoral response as "figuring out how to help and heal."
"Until now it has been a police action to get rid of bad priests," said Reese, a senior analyst at the National Catholic Reporter. "The next step is to figure out how to respond to victims, to bring in people who have worked with victims and have them share experiences. The best response then is to let victims tell their story to someone in authority in the church, who can weep with them. That helps the victim overcome the powerlessness and the helplessness they feel."
Reese defended Francis from criticism of doing little thus far against abuse. "The guy has a huge agenda, and the fact he has set up a commission is because O'Malley is telling him it needs his attention and he doing it."
The Council of Cardinals was meeting at the Vatican for three days this week after gathering for the first time in October. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said Thursday that the group was studying the work of the Vatican's departments "one by one" and would meet again in February.
Kington is a special correspondent.