- Vatican says Peter Saunders, an advocate for abuse victims, takes leave from papal commission
- Saunders: "I have not left and I'm not leaving"
- A sex abuse survivor, Saunders has been an outspoken critic of the panel
But Peter Saunders, an outspoken critic of the papal commission, responded: "I have not left and I'm not leaving."
Founder of the London-based National Association for People Abused in Childhood, Saunders told reporters, "I was appointed by His Holiness Pope Francis and I will only talk to him about my position."
A Vatican statement said the "direction and purpose" of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors was discussed at a Saturday meeting.
"It was decided that Mr. Peter Saunders would take a leave of absence from his membership to consider how he might best support the commission's work," the statement said.
The commission was formed in 2014 to prevent the abuse of minors, support victims of abuse, review priest "formation" programs, codes of conduct and screening candidates for priesthood. Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley of Boston heads the panel.
At a news conference after the Vatican's announcement, Saunders said he was blindsided by the decision.
"I was asked to consider my role or what my role should be with the commission," he said.
"I did not make a decision to take or accept any decision on a leave of absence. I said I would reflect on what I would do."
Saunders said he learned about his supposed leave after the statement's release.
"I find it outrageous that I was not told ... that the statement occurred before I had any time to reflect on what I might do next," said the former teacher who was himself abused as a child.
Saunders has clashed with the Vatican's chief financial officer, Cardinal George Pell, saying last May that Pell had been callous and "almost sociopathic" in his handling of clergy sexual abuse allegations. The Vatican defended Pell, saying Saunders did not speak on behalf of the Pope's sexual abuse committee.
The announcement of his leave comes days after Saunders told The Los Angeles Times the commission's last meeting was a "nonevent" and that he doubted the panel would succeed in changing the church's handling of abuse.
His departure would leave Marie Collins of Ireland as the only abuse survivor on the 17-member commission, which includes clergy members, nuns, academics, social workers and health professionals from throughout the world.
In a statement, the U.S.-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests defended Saunders.
"We share Pete Saunders' justifiable frustration with Vatican officials," director David Clohessy said."They refuse to take quick, simple, commonsense steps to protect kids and deter coverups by punishing clerics who conceal abuse.
He added, "Pete has been a brave, honest and tireless voice for kids and victims."
In June, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had created a church tribunal to judge bishops who fail to protect children from sexually abusive priests, a move long sought by abuse victims and their advocates.
The new court will be part of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Catholic Church's chief watchdog. Since 2001, the congregation has judged priests accused of sexual abuse, but there has been no Vatican office with a similar role to judge bishops.
The tribunal was proposed by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors but survivor advocates such as Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said the court has not been set up.
Critics of the church's handling of its sexual abuse scandal, which has involved thousands of priests and victims, have often argued that bishops who quietly shuffled abusive priests from parish to parish -- tacitly allowing the crimes to continue -- should be punished.
The new court was advocated by O'Malley, who has long pushed the Vatican to discipline bishops who failed to protect children.
But at their semi-annual meeting in St. Louis last June, U.S. Catholic bishops seemed taken by surprise at the move. Several suggested they first heard of the new tribunal by reading news reports.