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Pope Francis sets up task force to help bishops, religious write, revise abuse guidelines

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VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has set up a task force of qualified experts and canon lawyers to help bishops’ conferences and congregations of men and women religious with drawing up or revising guidelines for the protection of minors.

The Vatican will also be releasing — at an “imminent,” but unspecified date — a handbook or vademecum, prepared by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to help bishops and religious superiors clearly understand their responsibilities and the procedures for handling allegations of abuse.

The Vatican unveiled the new initiatives, which had been suggested one year ago at a Vatican summit on the protection of minors, at a news conference Feb. 28.

At the end of last year’s summit, Pope Francis expressed his intention to establish task forces “made up of competent persons” to assist those needing help in addressing and providing for the protection of minors, especially when they lack the needed resources and skilled personnel.

About a dozen bishops’ conferences in countries experiencing extreme hardship due to conflict or poverty still have not been able to draw up safeguarding guidelines as was called for in 2011 by the doctrinal congregation, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi told reporters at the press event.

However, the task force is only meant to respond to requests for assistance since the responsibility for formulating the guidelines fully rests on bishops and religious superiors, Father Lombardi said.

While the group is there to help those needing to still establish guidelines, it also will help those wanting assistance to revise and update their procedures to comply with recently mandated Vatican norms, he added.

Those who have completed guidelines must constantly review, revise and improve them, said the task force’s new coordinator, Andrew Azzopardi, who is head of the church’s safeguarding commission for Malta and Gozo.

Laws change, research on abuse reveals new insights and “the messages we get from victims always help us improve our procedures,” which should get revised at least every four or five years, he said.

The new task force, established by the pope, is currently made up of about a dozen canon lawyers and safeguarding experts. Requests for assistance are to be sent to taskforce@org.va where Azzopardi will relay questions and needs to experts, who will then provide the needed help.

The task force’s work and travel expenses will be covered by a special fund established by donors, said a Vatican communique.

The group will be under the authority of Archbishop Edgar Pena Parra, the “substitute secretary for general affairs,” which is the third-ranking official in the Vatican Secretariat of State, and will be supervised by the four members of the organizing committee of last year’s summit: U.S. Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago; Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay; Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna of Malta, adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Vatican’s chief abuse investigator; and Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, president of the Centre for the Protection of Minors of the Pontifical Gregorian University and member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

The task force was operative as of Feb. 24 and will have a two-year term.

Meanwhile, Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, told reporters that the doctrinal congregation is preparing the handbook suggested at last year’s summit.

Because there have been so many new laws and revisions over the years, the doctrinal congregation will clearly spell out what each bishop or religious superior is expected to do upon receiving an allegation of suspected abuse, he said.

It will also make clear how the new norms emphasize there are penalties involved when a leader neglects, ignores or covers up suspected or known abuse, he said.

Bishop Arrieta also explained that a new juridical “roundtable” or commission also has been set up for monitoring and reviewing how all the different dicasteries responsible for handling abuse cases are handling the workload and procedures.

Archbishop Filippo Iannone, president of the pontifical council, heads the commission, which is made up of representatives from the Secretariat of State and congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith, Eastern Churches, Bishops, the Evangelization of Peoples, Clergy, and Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

Bishop Arrieta said there have been so many new norms and procedures, some “ad experimentum,” for the Vatican offices to follow, the commission was set up “to see the results,” such as how the protocols are working or where there may be problems.

It is very likely, he said, that all the norms will have to be “put together” in some more accessible way “because, for people who are not canon lawyers, they can be difficult sometimes to interpret.”