British member of Vatican sexual abuse commission leaves

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VATICAN CITY, Feb 6 (Reuters) - A leading British member of a papal advisory commission on sexual abuse who has been among the most outspokenly critical of the Vatican has left the group, the Vatican said on Saturday, in an embarrassment for the Holy See.

A statement said that at a commission meeting "it was decided" that Peter Saunders would take a leave of absence. Saunders, himself a victim of sexual abuse by a priest, did not immediately reply to a telephone message requesting a comment on the circumstances of his departure.

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It said Saunders, head of Britain's National Association for People Abused in Childhood, would now "consider how he might best support the commission's work."

In a separate statement on Saturday, commission president Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston said Saunders had been asked to advise the commission on the possible establishment of a victim survivor panel.

His departure leaves only one victim of sexual abuse by a cleric, Marie Collins of Ireland, sitting on the commission, which has been slowed down by internal disputes.

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Saunders had been increasingly critical of the commission, which was set up in 2014. Made up of clerics and lay people from around the world, its task is to help Pope Francis root out sex abuse in the Church. Eight members are women.

On the eve of the commission's current meeting, Saunders was quoted by the Los Angeles Times as saying that the previous meeting last year was a "non-event," and demanded that the pope attend the current meeting.

"It will be outrageous if he doesn't attend, and I will say so - it will be the end of the honeymoon for Pope Francis," the Los Angeles Times quoted him as saying.

In a worldwide sex abuse scandal, which first became prominent in Boston in 2001, abusers were shunted from parish to parish instead of being defrocked and handed over to authorities.

Saunders has been spoken out on several issues in the past few months. Last year, he criticized Francis for appearing to endorse parents who spanked their children in order to discipline them.

He also made waves when he said that Australian Cardinal George Pell should be dismissed over allegations he failed to take action to protect children years ago. Pell is now the Vatican's economic minister.

The 17-member commission distanced itself from Saunders comments about Pell.

Last April, Saunders and three other lay commission members met with O'Malley of Boston, to complain over the over the appointment of a bishop in Chile accused of covering up abuse.

The Vatican says that as part of an advisory body, the commission's members should not comment on individual cases of abuse and leave these up to investigators. (Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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