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VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis yesterday set up a committee to fight child sex abuse in the Catholic Church and give pastoral care to victims following a recommendation from a council of cardinals he has asked to advise him.

The announcement was made by US cardinal Sean O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston and one of the eight members of the council, who said the precise composition of the new committee will be announced "in the near future".

O'Malley said the council suggested the new committee on Wednesday and Francis approved it on Thursday, adding that the initiative was also in line with the zero tolerance approach of pope emeritus Benedict XVI.

"The Holy Father has decided to constitute a committee for the protection of children," O'Malley said.

The committee could come up with codes of professional conduct for clergymen, guidelines for Church officials in individual countries on how to deal with misconduct and checks for would-be priests, O'Malley said.

"The emphasis so far has been on legal procedures but less on the pastoral response," he said, adding however that the committee will also look at ways of working together with civil authorities against abuse. Training courses have helped a lot in prevention, in spotting the danger signs," he said.

"The task will be to study the situation and make suggestions to the Holy Father," he added.

The Vatican has said its Canon Law prosecutors are investigating thousands of alleged cases of abuse but it is unclear how many have been confirmed and what action has been taken against those found guilty.

"The responsibilities of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will not change," the cardinal said, referring to the Vatican department responsible for investigating the abuses.

Abuses and cover-ups began coming to light a decade ago in the United States and there has been a wave of revelations since then -- although victims have mainly been coming forward only in Western countries.

The Vatican on Wednesday said it could not respond to questions on the abuses from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, explaining that it was not responsible for the actions of individual churchmen because they are subject to national laws.

Vatican officials will attend a meeting of the UN committee in Geneva on January 16 and O'Malley said "it will help the Holy See demonstrate its desire to help".

The scandals -- many of them dating back decades -- have scarred the Roman Catholic Church worldwide and led to sharp drops in public confidence in countries like Ireland and the United States.

US President Barack Obama, meanwhile, spoke approvingly of an "eloquent" argument by Pope Francis on rising inequality in societies split between the very poor and the super rich.

Obama referred to the Pontiff's remarks in his first Apostolic Exhortation as part of the President's own prolonged meditation on poverty in a speech on inequality and politics in America.

"Some of you may have seen just last week, the Pope himself spoke about this at eloquent length," Obama said in a speech to the Center for American Progress think-tank in Washington.

"How could it be, he wrote, that it's not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?"

Pope Francis argued in the exhortation, published this month, that such conflicted values marked a "case of exclusion" in an unequal society and wrote that "masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape."

It was not the first time that Obama had praised Pope Francis, who was elected in March and has caused a stir with his austere style and pronouncements on poverty.

In October, the President told CNBC that he was "hugely impressed" with the Pope's humility and empathy to the poor.*AFP

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