Vatican child protection watchdog pulls its punches

VATICAN CITY - A new Vatican child protection panel called Monday for abusers within the Church to be held accountable for their actions, but stopped short of saying how this should be achieved.

The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which counts two victims of clerical abuse among its 16 members, said it would prepare materials for a day of prayer for victims and that it was making an initial proposal to Pope Francis.

The multinational panel did not divulge what the proposal was: a move likely to draw criticism from victims' groups who accuse the Church of failing to take decisive action to stamp our paedophilia within its ranks.

In a statement, the 16-member panel said: "The Commission is keenly aware that the issue of accountability is of major importance.

"In its Assembly, members agreed on an initial proposal to submit to Pope Francis for consideration.

"Moreover, the Commission is developing processes to ensure accountability for everyone in the Church - clergy, religious, and laity - who work with minors.

Ahead of the Commission's first full meeting over the weekend, Francis sent a message to Catholic clergy warning them that they must no longer cover up sexual abuse, as the Catholic hierarchy in many countries did for years.

Critics say such warnings are meaningless unless the Church specifically instructs its servants that any and all evidence of abuse within its ranks should be immediately handed over to civil authorities to ensure abusing priests are dealt with by the full force of the law.

Seminars for church leaders

 The Vatican watchdog panel said that part of ensuring accountability "is raising awareness and understanding at all levels of the Church regarding the seriousness and urgency in implementing correct safeguarding procedures."

To this end, the commission also agreed "to develop seminars to educate Church leadership in the area of the protection of minors."

The Vatican's efforts to demonstrate that it is serious about tackling the problem are being played out against the backdrop of an unravelling scandal in Spain, where 10 priests and two Catholic lay workers were charged last month with the sexual abuse of altar boys between 2004 and 2007.

It is the biggest case of its kind yet in Spain, where the Church has long been accused of exactly the kind of cover-up Francis alluded to in his letter to clergy.

The pope helped trigger the investigation that led to the charges after being approached by one of the former altar boys in the southern city of Granada.

In his letter to the clergy, Francis said bishops had to take full responsibility for the safety of minors and vulnerable adults in their dioceses.

They must also ensure that Vatican instructions on how to handle sexual abuse cases are implemented, and procedures put in place to ensure future compliance, the pontiff said.

Francis's willingness to speak publicly about the issue has helped the Church undo some of the huge damage it suffered in the 1990s and 2000s as the scale of clerical abuse began to become apparent.

Anecdotal evidence suggests tens of thousands of priests worldwide may have been abusers.

The Vatican last year published figures showing that 3,420 cases had been dealt with by church tribunals in the previous decade.