Abuse survivor disputes removal from Vatican commission, seeks papal meeting

by Joshua J. McElwee

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The clergy sexual abuse survivor who the Vatican has said will be taking a leave of absence as a member of Pope Francis' commission to confront the abuse crisis says he did not accept such a leave and is now seeking a meeting with the pontiff.

"I have not left and I am not leaving my position on the commission," said British children's advocate Peter Saunders. "I was appointed by His Holiness Pope Francis and I will only talk to him about my position."

Saunders was speaking in a press briefing in Rome late Saturday, after the Vatican released a statement that day saying "it was decided" by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors that he would be taking a leave from his position as one of its 17 members.

The British child advocate is the founder of the UK's National Association for People Abused in Childhood. He has served on the commission since December 2014 but has also been highly critical of what he characterized as a slow process of reform of the church's practices on sexual abuse.

The commission has been meeting in Rome this weekend.

Saunders said Saturday that commission members had taken a vote of no confidence in him that morning, but had said the vote was meant for him "to consider what my role should be with the commission."

"I did not make a decision to take or accept any decision on a leave of absence," he said. Saunders said it was his understanding that after the vote he would be given time to consider his role with the group, but that afterwards the Vatican released the statement reporting his leave of absence.

"My understanding is that I was appointed by Pope Francis and therefore I can only be removed by Pope Francis," said Saunders, saying he had requested that commission president Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley request a meeting between Saunders and the pontiff.

"I left the building this morning hoping to have some peace and a bit of time to think about my next move," said the children's advocate. "I am still a commission member. I was totally unprepared for somebody from the commission ringing a member of the press and subsequently a statement being put out."

The vote taken Saturday was 15-0 in favor of the no confidence motion in him, said Saunders, with one commission member abstaining and another not present to take part. While Saunders said the Saturday vote was done by a show of hands, he said he did not take note of the commission member who abstained.

The children's advocate said that before the vote commission members expressed a concern that he speaks too frequently to members of the press and does not "toe the line when it comes to keeping my mouth shut."

When he joined the commission in December 2014, said Saunders, he said he had told commission members he would not be part of a "public relations exercise."

"The protection of our children is much more important than that," he said.

Another commission member, who requested to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the matter, hotly contested Saunders remarks. "We are deeply dedicated to the protection of children," said that person. "It's not a public relations exercise."

Commission members had in the past raised concerns about Saunder's comments on individual cases of clergy sexual abuse, saying the group was created to discuss issues of overall church policy and not to address individual cases.

The British children's advocate had commented most on Francis' appointment of Osorno, Chile Bishop Juan Barros, who sexual abuse survivors say covered up sexual abuse by clergy when he was a priest years ago.

At his press conference Saturday, Saunders spoke alongside Juan Carlos Cruz, a native Chilean who has claimed Barros saw his own abuse years ago by another priest and did not adequately report it.

Saunders said he wanted to try to bring Cruz to speak to the commission on the situation in Chile.

In a statement Saturday, O'Malley said the group's members had asked Saunders to advise them on possibly creating a victim/survivor panel to help with their work.

Besides Saunders, there is one other abuse survivor among the commission's members: Irish laywoman Marie Collins.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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