The protection of minors from sexual abuse is a number one priority for Pope Francis, says the new secretary of a papal commission to protect minors, who believes that the global Church can play a leading role against abuse.

"Protecting children, protecting those who are defenseless against those who would harm them, especially because they are in difficult situations, because they are poor, because no one is looking after them – this is a gospel priority," Monsignor Robert Oliver told CNA Sept. 10.

"The Lord had quite strong words about caring for his children. I think the Holy Father really sees this as an important priority."
On Sept. 10, it was announced that Msgr. Oliver was appointed secretary of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which is headed by Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston.

Prior to the appointment, Msgr. Oliver has spent years helping the U.S. Church implement reforms to prevent and respond to abuse of minors.

"I deeply think this is a very important area for the Church," the priest said. "We have a responsibility to our children. Everyone around the world knows the pain and suffering that our children have gone through, that our Church has gone through."

The council of cardinals advising Pope Francis established the commission in December 2013 to provide model practices that give an adequate and pastoral response to abuse. Its members include men and women who are professors or other experts in psychology, law, and assistance to sex abuse victims.

"I think we now have a place from which we can speak. And when we do speak, people are listening," Msgr. Oliver said.

He said people are now seeking out and joining with the Church on sexual abuse prevention, "realizing that we are quite serious about this effort and that we really will put in our efforts and we are going to put our best people into this."

The Catholic Church has been putting "enormous efforts" into child protection for 20 years, Msgr. Oliver said, adding that the Church is working to bring together people from different fields to help advance child protection policies and initiatives that the commission will propose to Pope Francis.

Msgr. Oliver noted that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2011 wrote to all the world's episcopal conferences on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI asking them to describe all of their child protection policies and procedures.

"Almost all of the conferences have done that now," he said, and the commission aims to work with the bishops' conferences and encourage them in pursuing best practices.

"What we'd like to do is to be a place where all of the different conferences can tell us what's working, and honestly, what's not working. What did they try? What didn't work, and why?"

"We would then be a place to be able to share that with all the other episcopal conferences," Msgr. Oliver said, so that both bishops' conferences and institutes of religious superiors can "really move forward based on what's being learned in different parts of the world."

In this way, the Church can be a resource and a voice against sexual abuse "that can be used to the advantage of children around the world."

The priest pointed to a recent report from the government of India estimating that over 50 percent of its minors suffer sexual violence.

"What in the world does that do to a society?" he asked.

Msgr. Oliver served in the Boston archdiocese in the wake of revelations of sexual abuse in the archdiocese stretching back decades – revelations that were followed by the resignation of then-Archbishop of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law. Msgr. Oliver worked in canonical affairs and was a consultant for the archdiocese's review board on sex abuse cases.

In January 2013, he became promoter of justice at the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In this role, which is somewhat analogous to the role of chief prosecutor in secular law, he was responsible for investigating the most serious violations of canon law, including crimes against the sanctity of the Eucharist, violations of the seal of Confession and allegations of the abuse of minors by clergy.

Msgr. Oliver said the commission's role is "in continuity" with the work of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's work on sexual abuse cases.

"They are continuing to work on cases, and we will work on all of the protection efforts," he said.

Msgr. Oliver said that the commission will speak with lawyers, law enforcement personnel and others to discuss the legal liabilities of sex abuse and to answer other questions like, "What is it that the Church is not doing correctly?" and "How is it that we can improve?"

"I think that through those conversations we'll come to learn their perspectives as well, and it's another way of strengthening our efforts," he said.