The clash between Peter Saunders and Cardinal Pell is a real headache for Pope Francis

The row is, above all, a challenge for Pope Francis (CNS photo/Paul Haring

The latest development from Rome is most disturbing. You can read a report of what is happening here.

Peter Saunders, appointed by Pope Francis to be part of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, himself a survivor of child abuse, has made a very strong attack on Cardinal George Pell, who has been appointed by the Pope to head up the Vatican’s financial commission. As you would expect, given the gravity of the charges against him, the cardinal has responded.

I have never met Cardinal Pell, but it is interesting to note that this is not the first time he has been the object of criticism. Some time ago he was attacked for extravagance, a charge that turned out to be utterly baseless, and made one wonder at the motivation of those putting about such rumours.

But what really strikes one here is something that sadly goes back to the beginning of Church history: the desire to air grievances in public. St Paul upbraided the Corinthians for having recourse to pagan courts (see the sixth chapter of the First Letter to the Corinthians). This is not the same as saying that these disputes need to be settled “in house”, which would be dangerous, given the sad history of the way child abuse has been covered up in the past. But what it does mean is that there are proper channels for deciding disputes inside the Church laid down by Canon Law, and one hopes that these can work effectively.

But is the Roman Curia working effectively when we have two men, both appointed to important jobs by the Pope, clearly not getting on well in public? Indeed, here we have the spectacle of one man calling for the other to be dismissed. Imagine that happening in the Cabinet, for example.

John Allen, the leading Vatican-watcher of our time, spotted the potential for trouble back in February. He observed the following about the Papal commission for the protection of minors:

Marie Collins, an Irish laywoman who was raped by a priest when she was 13, is the other survivor of clerical abuse on the new panel. Whether Francis realized it or not at the time he made the appointments, she and Saunders now are in position to deliver the pope a massive PR blow should they walk away from the commission calling it a sham… Both Saunders and Collins have demonstrated they won’t be shy about using their political capital.

Allen made a similar point in another column:

It’s not clear if Francis fully grasped this at the time, but when he named survivors to that group, he was handing them significant control over his reputation. If Collins and Saunders were ever to walk out, saying they’d lost confidence or feeling that they’d been exploited for a PR exercise, it would have a vast media echo.

That point still stands, perhaps more than ever. It is this that makes Mr Saunders’s claims against Cardinal Pell deeply troubling for all of us, but perhaps for Pope Francis more than anyone.