Pope Francis' remarks on spanking challenged by child abuse experts

Several child abuse experts question Pope Francis' statements on corporal punishment

A group of child abuse experts summoned by Pope Francis to help tackle priestly abuse in the Roman Catholic Church has criticized remarks made by the pope himself in which he suggested that it was permissible for parents to spank their wayward children.

Two members of the 17-strong commission, holding its first full meeting at the Vatican, said Saturday they objected to Francis’ comments, made last Wednesday, in which he backed corporal punishment.

Leading British anti-abuse campaigner Peter Saunders, abused by two Catholic priests as a child, said the committee would ask the pope to reconsider his remarks.

“It might start off as a light tap, but actually the whole idea about hitting children is about inflicting pain,” Saunders said at a news conference at the Vatican.

“That's what it's about and there is no place in this day and age for having physical punishment, for inflicting pain, in terms of how you discipline your children,” he said.

Fellow commission member Dr. Krysten Winter-Green, a New Zealand native who works in the U.S. with young abuse victims, said any physical punishment of children was unacceptable. “There has to be positive parenting, in a different way,” she was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.

Speaking about responsible fatherhood at a general audience on Wednesday, Francis recalled a meeting with a father who told him he hit his children when they misbehaved.

“Once, in a marriage counseling session, I heard a father say ‘Sometimes I need to hit my children a bit, but never in the face, to avoid humiliating them.’”

“That’s great,” added Francis, “he has a sense of dignity. He needs to punish, do the right thing, and move on.”

The off-the-cuff remark was just the latest by Francis to create controversy. Last month, he said that anyone who insulted his mother could expect a punch. Francis made that comment in connection with the murder by Islamic fundamentalists in Paris of cartoonists who had satirized Islam.

Speaking before the start of the abuse commission’s weekend session, Saunders said he considered corporal punishment “anti-biblical,” adding “Jesus never condones violence of any kind.”

Saunders said he was “surprised” by the pope’s remarks. “But Francis does come out with some howlers. It is a misguided thing to have said. I was hit, my dad was hit, but it has no part in discipline,” he added.

“I’ll tell him if I see him,” added Saunders.

Marie Collins, an Irish member of the commission who was also abused by clergy, said she was also surprised.

“The good thing about the Holy Father is he speaks without thinking, which in many ways I think is good because it is refreshing,” she was quoted as saying by Reuters. “Maybe sometimes he sort of puts his foot in it, but he's an honest man and I respect him for that. It's not an opinion I would hold.”

Former Irish President Mary McAleese also criticized Francis’ comments on Saturday, noting in a letter to the Irish Times that the Vatican has signed the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, and backed the committee monitoring the convention which is seeking bans on corporal punishment.

“Is the Holy See now doing what it claimed not to be doing a year ago, namely actively and internationally promoting the corporal punishment of children?” McAleese wrote.

“If it is, then Pope Francis has surely turned the clock back considerably,” she added.

In an interview with Germany’s Die Welt due to be published on Saturday, Germany’s minister for the family, Manuela Schwesig, said, “There is no way of hitting children with dignity.”

At the news conference on Saturday, the abuse commission’s American head, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, said the group had nearly finished recommendations for Francis about how to respond when bishops were discovered covering up for abusive priests.

Kington is a special correspondent.

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