The road to the heart of the Vatican’s fight against clerical abuse has been a long and painful one for Irishwoman Marie Collins. As a young girl in the 1960s, she was sexually abused by a priest in a children’s hospital in Dublin. Decades later, when she told Church authorities of her experiences, she was met with a wall of silence.
Collins soon began to learn she wasn’t alone. Her tireless activism on behalf of those who had been abused by priests led to the establishment of a judicial inquiry, which uncovered decades of abuse by clergy in the sprawling Archdiocese of Dublin. The Murphy Report, published in 2009, showed that Church leaders had put the avoidance of scandal and the reputation of the Church ahead of the needs of children when they were made aware of abuse.
Collins’ abuser — known by the pseudonym Father Edmondus — was eventually imprisoned in 1997. It later was discovered that the archdiocese had first received a complaint against him in 1960, yet he was not removed from ministry until months before his conviction in 1997.
Despite her suffering, Collins has never lost her sense of compassion. Referring to her abuser, she says “a man like that deserves our prayers but not our protection.” This compassion reflects the depth and strength of her Catholic faith. “I have remained a Catholic but not without much difficulty and struggle,” she said. “There have been periods when practicing my faith has been impossible. I have tried to separate the institution of the Church from the Faith. My belief in God has never wavered.”
Now, as a member of the newly established Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Collins is clear that the body must bring about real change. “Survivors will not be satisfied with more words or promises; they need to see real change,” she told Our Sunday Visitor in a recent interview.
For Collins, the priority is to ensure that the mistakes that have been made in places like Ireland and the United States are not repeated, as countries — particularly in the developing world — respond to allegations of abuse.
The Church needs “a strong worldwide child protection policy, which would include sanctions for any member of the Church in a position of authority who ignored these rules,” she said. “Having been to the first meeting and having met the other people involved, it’s clear to me that the establishment of the commission is a serious attempt to deal with the issue globally rather than the Church dealing with the issue country-by-country.”
She believes the fact that the body answers directly to the pope is also key in avoiding getting bogged down in bureaucracy.
“The fact that we are responsible directly to (Pope Francis) is indicative of the fact that he’s taking the issue seriously, and he’s determined for this to be handled worldwide.
“I think the pope understands just how important this issue is and how important it is to back up words with concrete action. As time goes on, there’ll be more signs of that,” she said.
One sign, for example, is Pope Francis’ May 26 announcement that he would be meeting face-to-face with survivors of clergy sexual abuse and celebrating Mass for them in the near future.
The issue of accountability is a key concern for Collins. Too many bishops who have failed to act against abusive priests have been allowed to remain in office undisciplined, she said.
It seems clear that this will be an important part of the commission’s work. Speaking to reporters after the first meeting, Boston Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, another member of the pontifical commission, said the group will “make recommendations regarding policies for assuring accountability and best practice.”
|Marie Collins (left), who was assaulted as a 13-year-old by a priest in her native Ireland, attends a 2012 vigil in Rome. CNS photo |
Collins said she has been “very impressed” with Cardinal O’Malley’s “openness and his ability to listen.”
“I’m also heartened by the fact that he sees the issue of accountability and transparency as vitally important,” she said.
A challenge for the commission, Collins said, will be getting everyone to see the centrality of accountability.
“The need for accountability is understood on the commission, but this isn’t the case everywhere,” she said. “I think a lot of Church people, particularly in countries where we have had the issue dealt with over many years, think that the issue is over and done with and we can move on without accepting the accountability issue.
“At the level of the commission, accountability is seen as the core issue; you have to look at that as being one of the main failings of the past,” she said.
The original eight members of the commission are shortly expected to add more members to the body. However, most observers don’t expect the group to grow much beyond a dozen members. Collins is the only abuse survivor among the members, and she sees her appointment as a “clear signal” that the Church “is committed to hearing the experiences of survivors at the highest level.”
Collins said she brings a different perspective. “It doesn’t matter how much professional or clerical experience that’s there in dealing with the issue, having lived the abuse, and not just the abuse, having lived the attitudes within the Church, I think I do bring a whole different perspective,” she said.
And one attitudinal shift she’d like to see is in reaching out to victims. “I would like to see the way survivors and their families have been treated change. The concentration on often-abusive legalistic responses instead of caring for those hurt needs to end.”
Too often in the past, she said, Church leaders have found it difficult to handle the “justified anger” of survivors. This, she believes, “underestimated the damage done to lives and the hurt and anger and thirst for justice that so many survivors feel.”
‘A big step’
She describes her appointment as “a big step for the Church to include a survivor on the commission, but a very necessary one.”
Collins believes the commission can also play a vital role in ensuring that Church leaders everywhere prioritize the issue of safeguarding children.
“There are so many countries that don’t think they have a problem or the problem hasn’t arisen yet. The commission — with the pope’s backing — can play a vital role in saying to bishops and Church leaders all over the world that they have to face this issue,” she said. “I meet very sincere people in the Church who think that child abuse is not a reality in their culture of their country. It’s not just denial, it’s ignorance. The commission will have to challenge this.”
In Collins, Pope Francis has found a determined champion for vulnerable children. “The ultimate test,” she said, “will be that we see accountability throughout the entire Church.”
Michael Kelly writes from Ireland.