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VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis on Thursday ordered the formation of a team of experts to address the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church, in his first major step to tackle a crisis that has plagued it for two decades.
The group will consider ways to better screen priests, protect minors and help victims in the face of charges the Vatican has not done enough to guard the vulnerable or make amends.
"The commission will be able to advise the Holy Father about the protection of children and pastoral care of victims of abuse," the archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley, told reporters in Vatican City.
The precise mission and make-up of the committee were not made clear, nor how it would respond to one of the most common criticisms of the church: that bishops who shielded pedophile priests have not been held to account.
But 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, said the question of bishops who had not reported crimes was "something that the church needs to address".
The Vatican was criticized earlier this week for refusing to share details of its internal investigations into abuse cases with a United Nations panel.
The proposal for a child protection committee was first discussed on Wednesday and Francis immediately approved the suggestion when told of it on Thursday, meaning it could be immediately announced, O'Malley said.
Some commentators have faulted 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.
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 U.S. 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.
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, O'Malley said.
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," Director David Clohessy said.
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 Francis' attempt to clean up the scandal-plagued Vatican court, the curia.
They will next meet from February 17-19, O'Malley said.
In January the Holy See will be questioned by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child on its response to the abuse crisis in relation to the 1990 U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the Holy See has signed.
Reporting by Naomi O'Leary; Editing by Andrew Roche