Papal abuse commission member suggests changes to group expected in fall

Jesuit Fr. Hans Zollner, president of the Center for Child Protection, speaks in early February 2016 at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome during a news conference officially launching the Center for Child Protection in Rome. At right is Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, who heads the Pontifical Commission for Child Protection. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Rome — A member of Pope Francis' commission on clergy sexual abuse has suggested the composition of the advisory body may change at some point this fall, as the original three-year terms granted to individuals in the group expire.

Jesuit Fr. Hans Zollner, who was appointed by Francis with seven others in March 2014 as the initial members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, said the group is hosting its last planned plenary session in September.

"People know that the mandate of this commission comes to a close," said Zollner, speaking Thursday at the Pontifical Gregorian University. "The mandate is of three years and at the end of this year the mandate finishes."

"We look forward to seeing what will be the follow-up," the Jesuit said.

"There is one more plenary session ... which will be the last plenary session," he continued. "From there, we need to see what will be the follow-up and how [the] commission will look and what will be the membership."

While Francis' creation of the pontifical commission was interpreted originally as a sign of his seriousness in confronting the continuing clergy sexual abuse crisis, the effectiveness of the group has come into question in recent months.

One of the commission’s original members, Irish abuse survivor Marie Collins, resigned March 1. She said in a statement for NCR at the time that she felt compelled to resign because of her frustration with Vatican officials' reluctance to cooperate with the commission's work to protect children and care for survivors.

Collins' had been one of two survivors appointed to the commission. The other, Briton Peter Saunders, was placed on an indefinite leave of absence in 2016.

Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley leads the pontifical commission. Its secretary is Msgr. Robert Oliver, who heads its office in Rome.

Francis appointed Zollner, Collins and O’Malley to the group alongside five others on March 22, 2014. Oliver, Saunders and another eight people were appointed on Dec. 17, 2014.

The statues of the commission state that members, including the president and secretary, are appointed to three-year terms and can be reappointed at the pope's discretion.

Zollner was responding to a question from NCR June 22 at a press briefing following the conclusion of an annual conference hosted by the Gregorian's Center for Child Protection, which he leads. The conference brings together people from across the English-speaking world who work in the area of safeguarding children.

The theme for this year's conference, co-hosted by the Scottish Catholic Safeguarding Service and the Safeguarding Commission of Malta, was "Celebrating hope."

Among the speakers at the conference were Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, a former promoter of justice at the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Capuchin Fr. David Songy, the president of St. Luke Institute in Maryland.*

Zollner said the theme of the event was important because those working in the area of child protection have a "very challenging" job.

Protecting minors is "charged with many expectations and with a history of failures and shortcomings," said the Jesuit.

"People who work in this field risk running out of energy, risk that they get frustrated and that was one of the reasons that we decided on this topic of hope," he said.

Andrew Azzopardi, a member of the Maltese church's Safeguarding Commission who took part in the event, said organizers wanted to focus on the positive with the theme, "recognizing there are challenges, there are difficulties, there are weights to carry in our work, but also offering some light at the end of the tunnel."

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

*This sentence has been corrected from the original version.

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