VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - A prominent and outspoken British member of a papal advisory commission on sexual abuse by the clergy on Saturday refused to step down despite a no-confidence vote, and said only Pope Francis could dismiss him.
A statement issued earlier said that "it was decided" at a commission meeting that Peter Saunders would take a leave of absence. Saunders, head of Britain's National Association for People Abused in Childhood, would now "consider how he might best support the commission's work", it said.
But Saunders, who as a child was abused by two priests, told a hastily called news conference: "I have not left and I am not leaving my position ... the only person who can remove me is the person who appointed me, the pope."
Saunders said he had not been aware of the commission statement until after it was issued by the Vatican press office.
Saunders had been publicly 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 establish "best practices" in dioceses around the world to root out sex abuse in the Church. Eight of its 17 members are women and two are themselves victims of abuse by clerics.
Saunders said that on Saturday morning the commission had taken a near-unanimous vote of no-confidence against him, accusing him of being hard to work with and a "campaigner", and of talking too much to the media.
Groups that track sexual abuse by the clergy rallied to his defence.
"The apparent attempt today by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors to eject an outspoken survivor raises serious doubts about its integrity and independence," said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-founder of BishopAccountability.org in the United States.
"For me the commission is a disgrace, as a survivor," said Juan Carlos Cruz, a victim of clergy sexual abuse in Chile who attended the news conference with Saunders. "They think that rape and child abuse in general is something that is behind us already but this is not."
Saunders said he had "made it clear that I would not be a member of a public relations exercise. The protection of our children is much more important than that."
Another commission member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it was "deeply committed to the protection of children", but that its brief was to advise and not investigate or judge.
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.
A year ago, Saunders criticised Francis for appearing to endorse parents who spanked their children in order to discipline them.
And in April, Saunders and three other lay commission members met with a top Vatican official to complain about the appointment of a bishop in Chile who had been accused of covering up abuse by a priest.
Saunders said on Saturday that the pope should dismiss Juan Barros as bishop of Osorno, as a test of his "seriousness on stopping child sex abuse". Barros denies having known that abuse took place.
Editing by Kevin Liffey and Himani Sarkar