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Cardinal will advise Pope Francis on protecting children
Gregory L. Tracy, The Pilot

VATICAN CITY — Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley has been appointed by Pope Francis to a commission created to advise the Catholic Church on how to protect children from sexual abuse.

Francis named the initial members of a commission to advise him on sex abuse policy Saturday, tapping lay and religious experts – and an Irish woman assaulted as a child by a priest – to start plotting the commission’s tasks and priorities.

The Boston Globe reports that O’Malley is the only American on the commission, but he will not have to move to Rome and will continue to serve as the Archbishop of Boston.

The eight members, four of them women, were announced after Francis came under fire from victims’ groups for a perceived lack of attention to the abuse scandal, which has seriously damaged the Catholic Church’s reputation around the world and cost dioceses and religious orders billions of dollars in legal fees and settlements.

The Vatican in December announced that Francis had decided to create the commission to advise the church on best policies to protect children, train church personnel and keep abusers out of the clergy. But no details had been released until Saturday and it remains unknown if the commission will deal with the critical issue of disciplining bishops who cover up for abusers.

In a statement, the Vatican hinted that it might, saying the commission would look into both “civil and canonical duties and responsibilities” for church personnel. Canon law does provide for sanctions if a bishop is negligent in carrying out his duties, but such punishments have never been imposed on a bishop for failing to report a pedophile priest to police.

The eight inaugural members include Marie Collins, who was assaulted as a 13-year-old by a hospital chaplain in her native Ireland and has gone on to become a prominent campaigner for accountability in the church.

Also named was O’Malley, one of Francis’ key advisers and the archbishop of Boston, where the U.S. scandal erupted in 2002.

Two other members are professors at Rome’s Jesuit Pontifical Gregorian University, which in 2012 hosted a seminar for bishops from around the world to educate them on best practices to protect children. Several participants from that conference are now founding members of Francis’ commission, including Baroness Sheila Hollins, a British psychiatrist.

During that 2012 conference, Collins told the bishops of her own ordeal, of the hospitalizations, anxiety and depression she endured after Irish church authorities didn’t believe her when she reported her attacker, and then blamed her for the assault.

“I was treated as someone with an agenda against the church, the police investigation was obstructed and the laity misled. I was distraught,” Collins said at the time.

The Vatican spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the institution of the commission was evidence that Francis believed “the church must hold the protection of minors among her highest priorities.”

But in a March 5 interview with Corriere della Sera, Francis appeared defensive about the issue, complaining that the church had been unfairly attacked.

He acknowledged the “profound” wounds abuse leaves and credited Pope Benedict XVI with turning the church around. Benedict in 2001 took over handling abuse cases because bishops were moving pedophiles around rather than punishing them.

In his final two years as pope he defrocked nearly 400 abusive priests.

Francis added: “The Catholic Church is perhaps the only public institution that has moved with transparency and responsibility. No one has done more. And yet the church is the only one that has been attacked.”

The initial group named Saturday will define the scope, statutes and priorities of the commission and propose other members to better reflect the church’s geographic diversity.

Other members include:

-Catherine Bonnet, a French consultant in child and adolescent psychiatry.

-Claudio Papale, an Italian canon lawyer and official of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handles sex abuse cases.

-Poland’s longtime former ambassador to the Vatican, Hanna Suchocka, a constitutional lawyer.

-Rev. Humberto Miguel Yáñez, an Argentine Jesuit who studied with Francis as a seminarian and currently is head of moral theology at the Gregorian.

-Rev. Hans Zollner, the vice-rector of the Gregorian, a psychologist and psychotherapist who organized the Gregorian seminar and also serves on the German government’s round table on child abuse.

Rev. Fabian Baez is parish priest in Francis’ hometown of Buenos Aires

AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis broke with papal protocol once again Wednesday, inviting an old friend for a spin in his panoramic white car during his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square.

The Rev. Fabian Baez, a parish priest in Francis’ hometown of Buenos Aires, didn’t have a VIP ticket granting him a seat close to the altar or a spot where the pope would chat with well-wishers. But as soon as Francis saw Baez in the crowd of several thousand people, the pope signaled for Vatican gendarmes to help Baez jump the barricade.

Francis then invited Baez to hop aboard his car, and the parish priest accompanied Francis through the square as the pope waved to well-wishers and kissed babies.

Baez said he was shocked by Francis’ invitation, telling reporters afterward: “I said to myself ‘What am I doing here? Mamma mia!'”

“The pope laughed and said ‘Come, sit down, sit down!’ And he continued to greet the people and kiss babies. I was very moved.”

Baez said the two had known each other since the 1990s; the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio was archbishop of the Argentine capital before being named pope.

Francis was in particularly good spirits at Wednesday’s audience, entertained by a circus troupe and greeted by Italy’s Sampdoria soccer team, who presented the soccer-mad pope with yet another jersey.

Francis has added a bit of spontaneity to the Vatican’s staid ways. He lives in the Vatican hotel, not the Apostolic Palace. He eschewed the armored popemobile for a simple Fiat during his trip to Brazil. And when he has left the Vatican, he has done so with a minimal security detail and no fancy motorcade.

Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images file

Newly elected Pope Francis appears on the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica on March 13, 2013, in Vatican City. Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected as the 266th Pontiff and will lead the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

By Tracy Connor, Staff Writer, NBC News
Gregorio Borgia / AP file

A child takes off Pope Francis’ white zucchetto, or skullcap, during a meeting with children and volunteers of the Santa Marta Vatican Institute, at the Vatican, on Dec. 14, 2013.

Could five little words uttered in 2013 change the course of the Catholic Church?

Pope Francis — also known as Time’s Person of the Year and Twitter’s #bestpopeever — has done a lot of talking since he was installed on the throne of St. Peter in March, tackling everything from luxury cars to income inequality in a series of interviews, sermons and written exhortations.

But for veteran Vatican watcher John Thavis, the pontiff’s most significant pontificating came July 29 when he gave a press conference on a flight back from Brazil.

“Who am I to judge?” he asked.

Francis was addressing the issue of gays in the church, but it was the tone as much as the topic that caught the public’s attention.

“The fact is that previous popes in talking about homosexuality had always mentioned the word ‘disordered’ and when you use that term, it immediately alienates,” said Thavis, author of “The Vatican Diairies.”

“Not only did Francis not use that word. He avoided the whole concept.”

The fact that the pope — the infallible leader of the world’s 1 billion Roman Catholics — refused to sit in judgement of gay priests (who were banned by his predecessor) was hailed as remarkable, even revolutionary.

Luca Zennaro / Pool via AP file

Pope Francis blesses a child during his visit to the Varginha slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on July 25, 2013. Francis visited one of Rio de Janeiro’s shantytowns, or favelas, a place that saw such rough violence in the past that it’s known by locals as the Gaza Strip.

It’s an approach he has taken on any number of subjects — atheists, unwed mothers, divorcees. Scolding is out in Rome; hand-holding is in.

“This comes after Pope John Paul II spent 15 years rewriting the catechism of the Catholic Church and eight years of Benedict reinforcing that: ‘How do you measure up to our teachings? Are you qualified to call yourself Catholic?'” Thavis said.

“Francis is saying the church is a big tent and he has to be welcoming. It’s an incredible change.”

For Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest like Francis, the most important words from Francis this year were written, not spoken.

“Look at the title of his latest apostolic exhortation. It’s ‘the joy of the Gospel,’ not the ‘the truth of the Gospel,'” he said.

“He has rebranded the church as welcoming, compassionate, a church for the poor as opposed to a church that nags people and is worried about rules and regulations,” said Reese, author of “Inside the Vatican.”

“The analogy I love to use is when you go home for Christmas, what you want is a hug from your mom. You don’t want to be asked about your nose ring, or why you dyed your hair, or who are you sleeping with now? He is trying to turn the church into a loving parent, not a nagging parent.”

More often than not, when asked which of Francis’ comments this year resonated most with them, Catholics immediately mentioned his gestures, not his quotes.

Osservato Romano / Reuters file

Pope Francis holds a dove before his Wednesday general audience at Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican, on May 15, 2013.

Riding the bus back to the guest house after being named pope. Washing the feet of prisoners on Holy Thursday. Turning an ’84 Renault into the Popemobile. Celebrating his birthday with the homeless. Embracing a disfigured fan. Cold-calling people who write to him.

Some have suggested it’s style over substance. Despite what he says and no matter how many selfies he takes with visitors, Francis has not changed church doctrine.

Priests still can’t get married, abortion remains a grave sin, and two men can’t walk up the aisle in a Catholic Church. Francis even excommunicated an Australian priest who advocated the ordination of women and gay marriage.

And yet his words have given hope to those pushing for change.

Deborah Rose Milovec, the head of FutureChurch, which supports the ordination of women, seized on this line from his November apostolic exhortion: “Demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected, based on the firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity, present the Church with profound and challenging questions which cannot be lightly evaded.”

“Giving people permission to dialogue — that’s a breath of fresh air,” she said. “There are many ways he has held his hand up and said, ‘No, not yet,’ but that sort of statement begins to open a crack in the door.

“That kind of statement is important because it says to me we have something to work with here. I have real hope he will sit down with feminist theologians and listen to what they have to say.”

If there is one theme that has dominated Francis’ public pronouncements this year it has been his love and sympathy for the poor and downtrodden.

“How I would like a church that is poor and for the poor,” he said days after the black smoke wafted out of the Sistine Chapel chimney. His November exhortation slammed unchecked capitalism and income inequality.

Rush Limbaugh frothed that the new pope is a Marxist. But in Melbourne, Fla., Kathy Gilliland, 56, liked what she was hearing.

Visiting the majestic St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City this week, Gilliland said it both surprised and delighted her that her spiritual leader — who has forsaken the opulent trappings of the Vatican for a spartan guest house — understood the struggles of the middle class at a time when the wealthy are richer than ever.

“I think it shows he’s in touch with the modern world,” she said. “It shows he’s more humane.”

The magazine’s managing editor, Nancy Gibbs, tells Matt Lauer that Pope Francis was selected for changing the tone of the Vatican.