An outspoken and critical member of Pope Francis’ commission on priestly sex abuse has said he will defy moves to oust him, claiming that only the pontiff himself can remove him from the panel.
In a move that will raise questions about Francis’ commitment to tackle abuse within the Roman Catholic Church, Peter Saunders, a British member of the commission who suffered abuse by priests as a child, was sidelined on Saturday.
In a short statement, the Vatican said that during a commission session hours earlier, “it was decided that Mr. Peter Saunders would take a leave of absence from his membership to consider how he might best support the commission’s work.”
But Saunders, who has advised the British government on abuse, told reporters on Saturday that he had been personally hired by Francis and could be fired only by him.
“I have not left and am not leaving my position on the commission,” he said, reading a prepared statement. “I was appointed by His Holiness Pope Francis and I will talk only with him about my position.”
Saunders said he “might” even show up at the commission’s Sunday meeting. “I haven’t had a call from His Holiness, so the door is still open,” he said.
Last week, ahead of the three-day meeting of the commission that started Friday, Saunders challenged Francis to meet with members, saying it would be “outrageous” if the pontiff failed to show.
Saunders and Marie Collins of Ireland were handpicked by the pope to join the commission in 2014. As survivors of abuse by priests, they lent the panel credibility as Francis sought to show he was serious about tackling endemic abuse in the church.
But both Saunders and Collins objected last year to Francis’ appointment of Chilean Bishop Juan Barros to the Diocese of Osorno in Chile, in the face of accusations that Barros covered up for a proven predator priest, Father Fernando Karadima. Francis has dismissed the vocal protest in Chile against Barros as the work of “lefties.”
On Saturday, Saunders also claimed a Vatican tribunal set up last year to crack down on bishops who cover up for predators “seems to exist in name only.”
Saunders said that the commission had heard about two Italian priests who recently reported sex abuse by a colleague to their bishop, who told them to stay silent — news that “rips my heart out,” Saunders said.
When he asked the commission to make its discussions public, he said he was told all debate must remain “behind closed doors.”
At Saturday’s session, he said, “commission members reacted to my criticisms in a frightening way, acting as if dissent and free speech would make their work more difficult. This is exactly what created the child sex abuse crisis in the first place.”
Marie Collins defended the work of the commission Saturday.
“It is slow,” she told the Associated Press. “It’s not going to make changes overnight. And there are frustrations in that,” she added. “But if we can change policy and get policies put in place that will stick around the world, that will make children safer in the future, then it’s worth making time to get it right.”
Saunders addressed reporters in Rome alongside Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean man who has testified that Karadima abused him while Barros watched. Cruz was previously a candidate to join the commission, but leaked emails between Chilean cardinals suggest they worked to block his nomination.
“For me the commission is a disgrace,” Cruz said. “It includes no abuse survivor from the Southern Hemisphere, which is a playground for pedophiles.”
Kington is a special correspondent.