Outspoken abuse survivor ejected from Vatican commission

Peter Saunders, given ‘leave of absence’, says Vatican system ‘essentially corrupt’

Peter Saunders:  criticised appointment  of controversial  bishop Juan Barros. Photograph: Tony Gentile/Reuters

Peter Saunders: criticised appointment of controversial bishop Juan Barros. Photograph: Tony Gentile/Reuters


UK child sex abuse lobbyist Peter Saunders, who was given a “leave of absence” from his role in the Holy See’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, has said that the “Vatican system” seems “essentially corrupt and unwilling to do the right thing”.

After a commission meeting on Saturday, the Holy See announced “it was decided” that Mr Saunders would take a leave of absence in order to “consider how he might best support the commission’s work”.

According to Vatican sources, this was prompted by concern among members that Mr Saunders had a conflict-of-interest created by his dual role as a campaigner with the UK child sex abuse lobby Napac and as a policy consultant on the Vatican commission.

In particular, Mr Saunders surprised fellow commission members last week by criticising Pope Francis.

Appointment of bishop

He also criticised the pope’s appointment last summer of controversial Chilean bishop Juan Barros to the Diocese of Osorno. Bishop Barros has been accused of covering up the sex abuse crimes of Fr Fernando Karadima, a Chilean priest.

Speaking to The Irish Times on Sunday, Mr Saunders said he was “shell-shocked” and disappointed at the manner in which the “inquisition” had expressed a vote of no confidence in him.

As far as he is concerned, he has not taken a leave of absence, while he says the only person who can sack him is Pope Francis. He argues that “nothing significant” is happening at the commission, adding: “I had great hope for Pope Francis . . . but so far there has been no real change”.

He said he had asked the pope last October to attend commission meetings to underline the importance of its work in relation to “a worldwide [sex abuse] phenomenon of disgusting, epic proportions”. He repeated his call for the pope to sack Bishop Barros, adding: “I cannot be part of something [in the Holy See] that runs alongside a system that is essentially corrupt and unwilling to do the right thing . . . protect children.”

Vatican insiders, however, point out that the Child Protection Commission, set up in 2014 as Pope Francis’s response to the clerical sex abuse crisis, is a policy body which has no sanctionary powers, nor the remit to examine individual cases.

On Sunday, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke confirmed that Mr Saunders was now on a leave of absence, adding that he had had problems with his fellow commission members.

His departure means Irish survivor Marie Collins is now the only sex abuse victim serving on the 17-member commission, which includes eight women. She confirmed to The Irish Times that commission members had been dismayed by Mr Saunders’s critical remarks, often made to the media and not to the commission itself.

Clerical sexual abuse lobbyists have been critical of the treatment of Mr Saunders, with Anne Barrett Doyle of US lobby BishopAccountability.org saying it raised “serious doubts about [the commission’s] integrity and independence”.