Vatican's abuse panel plans to include more experts, another survivor

Vatican City — A papal commission on child protection will be expanding its nine-member panel to include more experts and another survivor of clerical abuse.

The Commission for the Protection of Minors, which Pope Francis established in December, is now awaiting the pope's approval of members' latest efforts as they aim to lay out a pastoral approach to helping victims and prevent future abuse.

Marie Collins, a commission member and survivor of clerical abuse, told The Associated Press on Monday that the specially appointed group has agreed on its provisional statutes and finalized a list of potential new members, adding experts from other countries and disciplines as well as including another survivor.

Currently the commission includes: U.S. Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, head of the commission; U.S. Fr. Robert Oliver, commission secretary; Collins and six, mostly European, experts in mental health, civil and church law, and moral theology.

The group, which had its third meeting Oct. 4-5 at the Vatican, is awaiting the pope's final approval of their proposals.

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The pope, who has called for zero tolerance and complete accountability for the "despicable" crime of abuse, has said he wants the commission to help the church develop better policies and procedures for protecting minors.

Collins also told the AP that the commission has created working groups that will focus on priestly formation, accountability and reaching out to survivors.

Getting input from survivors is "essential" for an appropriate, effective and compassionate response to the crisis, said Mark Vincent Healy, one of six abuse survivors who met Pope Francis at the Vatican in July.

"Engaging directly with survivors and having them lead on developing a resolution to the crisis is the way forward," he told Catholic News Service.

While the papal commission is focusing on building best practices in prevention, there is a lot left to do in reaching out to and helping the countless numbers of men, women and children who have been abused by clergy, he said by telephone from Ireland on Oct. 3.

Most services available for abuse victims "are not good and survivors are suffering twice for their abuse -- as a child and as an adult needing help," he said.

If the abuse crisis had been "a car crash," the church and the world would be rallying around its survivors as well as launching a search-and-rescue operation looking for possible victims gone unseen, Healy has said.

Instead, it is "the survivors who are rattling the gates, saying, 'listen to us,' " he said.

Healy said he would like to see "safe spaces" be provided where survivors, especially those who are still hiding their abuse, can go for support.

They can be online, toll-free hotlines or in-person services, but they all "have to be survivor-led" in order to help vulnerable people feel safe and understood, he said.

To make a space feel safe, the victim needs to find five things, he said: A space that is non-threatening, so those who are afraid to take the first step won't be intimidated; non-confrontational, so those who do make contact are greeted warmly and made to feel welcomed; non-judgmental, so once a dialogue begins, there isn't additional stress or guilt; completely confidential, so privacy can be guaranteed; and caring, so that the therapy and support offered respect the person's dignity and promote real justice.

However, he said, confidentiality can be misused if it becomes "a cloak for secrecy." Making abuse victims sign non-disclosure clauses in their case settlements, for example, is denying people their "fundamental human right of freedom of expression."

"There should be no restrictions on their ability to tell their story," especially when speaking out is so instrumental to the healing process, he said.

While improved training of church personnel, better procedures for dealing with allegations, stricter penalties and enforcement are all key parts of tackling abuse, he said, the church still will not be safer unless there is a change in culture.

"The attitude has to be, 'you have suffered enough.' " Offer victims the justice they never had, the dignity that was taken from them and the compassion, "the love they never received," he said.

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