Pope Francis is to set up a special committee to help protect children against sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, the archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley, announced yesterday.
The move is Francis' first major step to address the crisis that has discredited the church, in the face of charges the Vatican has not done enough to protect children or make amends for abuse.
"The commission will be able to advise the Holy Father about the protection of children and pastoral care of victims of abuse," O'Malley told reporters.
The precise mission and make-up of the committee is not yet decided but its role is likely to involve forming guidelines for child protection, improving screening of priests, examining ways to help victims and coordinating co-operation with civil authorities over abuse cases, O'Malley said.
It is also expected to examine ways to help communities affected by abuse and provide mental health care to victims.
This came as the Vatican came under fire for refusing to give a UN panel information it requested on clerical sex abuse, saying it was part of its confidentiality policy. Campaigners had slammed it as "a slap in the face" for victims.
In a series of questions asked in the run-up to a public hearing scheduled for next month, the UN committee on the rights of the child had requested the Vatican to provide details of abuse cases and specific information concerning their subsequent investigation and handling.
But, in its response, the Holy See said that although it had answered the questions in a general way, it was not its practice to disclose detailed information on specific cases unless it was requested to do so by another country as part of legal proceedings.
In the 24-page document, the Vatican said it had been "deeply saddened by the scourge of sexual abuse" and regretted the involvement of some members of the Catholic clergy.
But it did not give all the details requested by the committee in a lengthy, multi-part question on the "sexual violence against children committed by members of the clergy, brothers and nuns in numerous countries around the world".
The Holy See was asked to provide detailed information on all cases of child sexual abuse that had been committed by members of the clergy or brought to its attention over a certain period.
In a cover note, the Vatican said the committee had in many instances asked it to respond on "concrete situations that fall outside the direct control of the Holy See, since they concern matters for which Catholic persons and institutions present in other countries are responsible".
The Holy See, which signed the convention on the rights of the child in 1990, argues that while it encourages the rights recognised on a global basis, it can only implement them on the territory of the Vatican.
Campaigners reacted angrily to the church's response on sexual abuse, with Keith Porteous Wood of Britain's National Secular Society branding it "a brazen failure".
"Many will be disappointed and surprised by this slap in the face to the tens if not hundreds of thousands of suffering victims and to a UN body," he said.
Reuters, The Guardian