VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis' sex abuse commission has made new progress after languishing for much of the past year. It approved its legal statutes, proposed new members and divided up work to focus on reaching out to survivors, holding bishops accountable and keeping pedophiles out of the priesthood, The Associated Press has learned.
The commission met over the past weekend for the third time since it was announced last December.
While Francis' other expert commissions looking into Vatican finance and administration worked at a frenzied pace through 2014 and finished their projects in recent months, the sex abuse commission never seemed to get off the ground. It lacked organization, a clear mission statement, office space, funding and a full membership roster.
But commission member Marie Collins, herself a sex abuse survivor, told AP on Monday that much progress was made this weekend. It was the first meeting since Francis put the Vatican's sex crimes prosecutor, Monsignor Robert Oliver, on the job full-time as the commission's secretary, or No. 2.
Headed by Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the nine commission members - four of whom are women - approved their provisional statutes laying out the scope of their work that will now be put to Francis for approval, Collins said. They also finalized a list of other member candidates whom Francis must approve: There will be fewer than 20 comissioners altogether, adding experts from other fields and geographic locations and including another survivor of abuse.
The commission will soon have permanent office space and members have divided themselves into working groups focusing on a laundry list of issues, including training of priests, education outreach, accountability, guidelines and policy issues and reaching out to survivors so their input to the commission can be heard, Collins said.
"Listening to their views on what is wrong and what needs to be put right has to feed into the overall learning," Collins said.
Francis named the initial members in March after coming under criticism from victims groups for having ignored and underestimated the sex abuse issue. The aim of the commission is to provide the church with the best advice and practices on how to keep children safe, how to keep the priesthood free of abusers and how to care for victims.
O'Malley has pledged that the commission will develop "clear and effective protocols" to hold accountable bishops who covered up for abusive priests.
Collins said she had been frustrated earlier in the year with the slow pace of work on the commission, but was now more hopeful after the weekend's progress.
"I want to see change as fast as possible. But on the other hand if we're going to bring in change, it has to be the right change and it has to be well thought out and it has to be something that will last," she said. "There's no point in rushing something into place and then finding it has flaws."
In July, Francis had his first encounter with victims of abuse, meeting individually with a half-dozen men and women for more than three hours. Collins helped organize the meeting, attended one of the encounters and said she hopes Francis would meet with other survivors in the future.
"No matter how much you read, or learn or know about abuse, nothing brings it home to you like speaking to someone who has actually experienced it, and hearing what it has done to their lives and their family," Collins said.
Collins said that after witnessing Francis with the survivors, she is confident that he now "gets it."
The commission met just as Francis convened bishops from around the world to tackle a related issue: church teaching and Catholic family life. Francis opened the two-week meeting by urging the bishops to speak their minds without fear about contentious issues like contraception, gays, marriage and divorce.
The run-up to the meeting has been marked by mudslinging between conservative and progressive churchmen over issues such as whether Catholics who divorce and remarry without an annulment can receive Communion. Church teaching says such Catholics are living in sin and cannot receive the sacraments.
A top synod official, Cardinal Peter Erdo of Hungary, said one answer to the problem was to simplify the annulment process, suggesting that the Vatican might actually endorse the previously taboo call to make it easier to get one.
Divorcing couples should better know how marriages can be annulled since "it does not seem hazardous ... to believe that many marriages celebrated in the church may be invalid," Erdo said in the keynote speech.
Francis has quoted a former archbishop of Buenos Aires as saying half the marriages celebrated in the church are invalid, primarily because the bride and groom didn't fully know what they were getting into or appreciate that marriage is a life-long commitment.
Erdo said doctrine was not up for debate but that the church must better discern pastoral responses on a case by case basis.