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Pope defensive on sex abuse as commission lags

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VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis is coming under increasing criticism that he simply doesn't get it on sex abuse.

Three months after the Vatican announced a commission of experts to study best practices on protecting children, no action has been taken, no members appointed, no statute outlining the commission's scope approved.

Francis hasn't met with any victims, hasn't moved to oust a bishop convicted in 2012 of failing to report a suspected abuser, and on Wednesday insisted that the church had been unfairly attacked on abuse, using the defensive rhetoric of the Vatican from a decade ago.

Victims' advocates said his tone was archaic and urged Francis to show the same compassion he offers the sick, the poor and disabled to people who were raped by priests when they were children.

"Under Pope Francis the Vatican continues to deny its role in creating and maintaining a culture where upholding the reputation of the church is prioritized over the safety of children," said Maeve Lewis, executive director of the Irish victims' support group One in Four.

To be sure, Francis adores children like a father — it's on display every Wednesday during his general audience — and he has continued to defrock pedophile priests. But unlike Pope Benedict XVI, he has rarely spoken out about abuse, indicating it clearly has not been a priority in his first year as pope. Instead, he has focused on introducing the world to his merciful vision of the church and reforming the Vatican bureaucracy.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Wednesday the upheaval of those reforms had delayed getting the commission off the ground. But he said there was no doubt it would, and that it would eventually propose new initiatives to protect children and be a model for the church and society at large.

"I'm waiting for it, and I hope with all my heart (and I know that qualified experts have been contacted in an exploratory way to see if they would be available)," Lombardi said in an email.

Francis has only spoken out a few times on abuse and his toughest words weren't even pronounced. Francis apparently scrapped his prepared Dec. 2 speech to bishops from the Netherlands, who have been dealing with revelations that some 20,000 children were sexually abused in Dutch Catholic institutions over the past 65 years. Instead, Francis spoke to the bishops off-the-cuff.

On Jan. 31, Francis did mention his new sex abuse commission in a speech to the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handles sex abuse cases. In his final words before imparting his blessing, he said children must always be protected and that he wants his new sex abuse study commission to be a model.

"For a year we've been saying that while Pope Francis is making progress on church finance and governance he's done nothing — literally nothing — that protects a single child, exposes a single predator or prevents a single cover up," said Barbara Dorris of the main U.S. victim's group SNAP.

Francis was asked about protecting children by the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera in an interview published Wednesday.

Francis acknowledged the "profound" wounds abuse leaves and credited Benedict with having turned the church around. Benedict in 2001 took over handling abuse cases because bishops were moving pedophiles around rather than punishing them. He updated the Vatican's in-house norms and in his final two years as pope defrocked nearly 400 priests himself.

But Francis then got defensive: "The Catholic Church is perhaps the only public institution that has moved with transparency and responsibility. No one has done more. And yet the church is the only one that has been attacked."

The former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio has said that while he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, he never dealt with a case of sex abuse, and indeed the scandal has yet to explode in Argentina on the scale that it has elsewhere, including in neighboring Chile. But the online database BishopAccountability.org has cited several cases of Argentine bishops siding with abused clerics and imposing gag orders on victims — practices that were common in the U.S. before American bishops changed their tune amid the explosion of cases in 2002 and resulting avalanche of lawsuits.

Buenos Aires native Sebastian Cuattromo, for example, says he approached Bergoglio's archdioceses in 2002 seeking help to get out of a confidentiality agreement he accepted when he settled with a religious order for abuse he suffered as a 13 year old. He said he wanted the church to know the facts after learning that his abuser had fled to the United States. He said he received no reply, though the abuser was eventually convicted.

In an email, Cuattromo said the archdiocese's dismissive attitude to him and victims in general was evidence of "a clear situation of power which, at least in Argentina and Latin America, the Catholic Church hierarchy continues to enjoy."

Terrence McKiernan of BishopAccountability.org said it was "breathtaking" that Francis had made the church the victim of the scandal, rather than express sorrow to the hundreds of thousands of victims or acknowledge the complicity of bishops in covering up the crimes.

"It is astonishing, at this late date, that Pope Francis would recycle such tired and defensive rhetoric," McKiernan said in a statement.

Lombardi stressed that Francis' response was understandably brief given the wide-ranging nature of the Corriere interview. He said the pope's defensive tone should be taken as a recognition that the church had made progress but that it often felt "frustrated" that its work hadn't been recognized.

"At the same time, it's clear that there's an immense job to be done for the past, present and future," Lombardi said. "The pope knows this well."

The Vatican has in the past decade overhauled its internal procedures to make it easier to oust rapists. But it still has no blanket policy telling bishops to report abusers to police or risk being sanctioned themselves, and to date no bishop has been punished for a cover up. In addition, the harshest penalty the church hands out is to essentially fire the abuser.

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Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield

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