VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis on Tuesday responded to complaints that he has largely ignored the clerical sex-abuse scandal, agreeing to assemble a panel of experts to advise the Holy See on protecting children from pedophiles and helping abuse victims heal.
It remains to be seen whether the experts will take up one of the core issues behind the problem - making bishops who shelter abusive priests accountable - and victims groups questioned whether another study group would make progress on an issue that has vexed the Vatican for decades.
Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston, announced the creation of the commission Thursday at the conclusion of a meeting between Francis and his eight cardinal advisers who are helping him govern the church and reform the Vatican bureaucracy.
Boston was the epicenter of the 2002 clerical sexual abuse scandal in the United States.
O'Malley told reporters that the commission, made up of international lay and religious experts on sex abuse, would study current programs to protect children, better screen priests, train church personnel, and suggest new initiatives for the Holy See to implement inside the Vatican City State and for bishops to implement around the world.
The initiative came as a surprise, and seemed hastily put together as if Francis wanted to signal a get-tough approach amid questions about his commitment to fighting abuse.
Francis' tepid comments to Dutch bishops last week about the need to help victims heal, plus his failure to meet with sex-abuse victims while showing compassion to the sick and disabled every week, had fueled criticism from victims' groups and advocates. O'Malley announced broad areas of study that the Vatican has already signaled were priorities for bishops to focus on, but provided no details about who would be on the commission, or what its size, structure, or scope would be.
O'Malley noted that the Vatican's involvement in the crisis has been largely judicial in nature, with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2001 taking over church trials for priests accused of raping and molesting children.
Now, he said, Francis wants input for a pastoral response, as well.