VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis on Saturday named a woman molested by a priest as a child to be part of a core group to help the Catholic Church fight the clerical sexual abuse of minors that has haunted it for over two decades
The first eight members - four women and four men - hail from eight different countries and include Boston Cardinal Sean O‘Malley, former Polish Prime Minister Hanna Suchocka and Baroness Sheila Hollins, a British psychiatrist.
The victim is Marie Collins, who was abused in her native Ireland in the 1960s and has campaigned for the protection of children and for justice for victims of clerical pedophilia.
“Pope Francis has made clear that the Church must hold the protection of minors amongst her highest priorities,” Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said in a statement.
The formation of a group of experts, initially announced in December, comes just over a month after the United Nations accused the Church of putting its reputation before the well-being of children and imposing a “code of silence” among clerics on the issue of sexual abuse.
Accusations that Pope Francis has not taken a strong enough stand against clerical sexual abuse tarnished the overwhelmingly positive reviews he received on reaching the first anniversary of his election to the papacy last week.
Lombardi said the group would consider options such as criminal action against offenders, education about child exploitation, best practices to better screen priests and a clear definition of civil and clerical duties within the Church.
These initial members will be responsible for rounding out the “Commission for the Protection of Minors” with other international experts and defining the scope of its work.
O‘Malley, a member of the pope’s “kitchen cabinet” of eight cardinals, published in 2011 an online database of clergy in his Boston archdiocese accused of sexual abuse of minors.
Collins, a founding trustee of the Irish abuse victims support group One in Four, has urged the Vatican to punish bishops who fail to implement Church rules on finding pedophile priests and protecting children.
The United States-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) welcomed Collins’s appointment but said the pope still had to “take strong steps right now to protect kids, expose predators, discipline enablers and uncover cover-ups.”
Suchocka, who was prime minister in Warsaw in 1992-1993, served as justice minister from 1997-2000 and Polish ambassador to the Holy See from 2001-13.
Pope Francis has called sexual abuse of children “the shame of the Church” and has vowed to continue procedures put in place by his predecessor, Benedict XVI.
But he seemed to pay less attention to abuse than to other reforms. Defensive testimony by Vatican officials before the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child in January set of a wave of criticism that he was not bold enough on the issue.
The Argentine-born Jesuit pope has also been criticized for not appointing enough women to senior positions in the male-dominated Church, despite repeated statements about their equality with men.
The other members of the group are French child psychiatrist Catherine Bonnet, Italian canon law professor Claudio Papale and two Jesuit priests, Argentine moral theologian Humberto Miguel Yanez and German psychologist Hans Zollner.
Baroness Hollins is a former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the British Medical Association.
Separately, the Vatican announced on Saturday that British Monsignor Brian Ferme would be secretary of the Vatican Council for Economy to help German Cardinal Reinhard Marx in supervising the Holy See’s financial and economic activities.
Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Tom Heneghan