Pope Francis has announced he is setting up a commission to boost efforts to combat the sexual abuse of children by priests.
The announcement came after a meeting of the Pope’s Council of Cardinals, which includes Australia’s Archbishop George Pell.
The commission could draw up codes of conduct for members of the clergy, and guidelines for screening priests.
It would also be tasked with coming up with initiatives to ensure the better protection of children and would keep the Pope informed about the church’s programs in this area.
“The commission will be able to advise the Holy Father about the protection of children and pastoral care of victims of abuse,” archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley said.
The precise mission and make-up of the committee were not made clear, nor how it would respond to the criticism that bishops who shielded paedophile priests have not been held to account.
But Cardinal O’Malley, known as a pioneer for a more open approach to tackling scandal since he published a database of Boston clergy accused of sexual abuse of minors online in 2011, says the question of bishops who had not reported crimes was “something that the church needs to address”.
Earlier this week Pope Francis expressed compassion for victims of sex abuse by priests, but the Vatican also came under fire for refusing to provide to a United Nations panel details of allegations of abuse within the church.
The proposal for a child protection committee was first discussed on Wednesday and Pope Francis immediately approved the suggestion when told of it on Thursday.
Some commentators have faulted Pope Francis for not doing enough to address the inherited abuse scandal since he became the first non-European pontiff in 1,300 years in March.
Archdiocese in US planning to reveal priests accused of sex abuse
Cases of abuse by clergy have forced the church to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation worldwide, bankrupting a string of dioceses.
Earlier this week the US Archdiocese of St Paul and Minneapolis warned it planned to disclose the names of dozens of priests credibly accused of the sexual abuse of children.
Cardinal O’Malley says the new body is likely to draw up guidelines on screening of priests, ways to help victims and cooperation with civil authorities over abuse cases.
It is also expected to examine ways to help communities affected by abuse and provide mental health care to victims.
Catholic commentators said the Pope’s move was a step forward, but the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), which wants the pope to punish cover-ups of abuse, rejected the committee as “meaningless”.
“No institution can police itself, especially not an ancient, secretive, rigid, all-male monarchy,” SNAP director David Clohessy said.
The formation of the abuse committee was the first measure to be announced following a series of closed-door meetings between the pope and a group of cardinals discussing reforms to the Vatican’s troubled administration.
The team of eight, appointed shortly after the Pope’s election, is seen as central to his attempt to clean up the scandal-plagued Vatican court, the curia.
They will next meet from February 17-19, Cardinal O’Malley said.
In January the Holy See will be questioned by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on its response to the abuse crisis in relation to the 1990 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the Holy See has signed.