VATICAN CITY — A woman who was sexually abused by a clergyman when she was a child is now in a position to prevent similar crimes against the young.
Marie Collins, who was sexually abused by a hospital chaplain in her native Ireland when she was 13, is one of eight experts from eight countries that Pope Francis has chosen to make up the new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
“My appointment to the commission came as a complete surprise,” said Collins. “I felt strongly that survivors should have a voice on this commission, but had no idea I would be asked.”
The newly appointed members, who include Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, four women and two Jesuit priests, will now be tasked with drawing up the commission’s final structure. In a March 22 statement announcing the establishment of the commission, the Vatican said other members will be added from “various geographical areas of the world.”
Giving more details, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the new anti-abuse body would take “a multipronged approach” to promoting the protection of minors, including “education regarding the exploitation of children; discipline of offenders; civil and canonical duties and responsibilities; and the development of best practices as they have emerged in society at large.”
Emphasizing that Pope Francis has made protection of minors one of the Church’s highest priorities, Father Lombardi hoped that, “with the help of God, this commission will contribute to the Holy Father’s mission of upholding the sacred responsibility of ensuring the safety of young people.”
Survivor Group Demands Action
SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, praised inclusion of an abuse victim on the panel. But they said the Pope needs to take action to root out complicit bishops rather than just create an abuse panel.
“He’s had more than a year to defrock, demote, discipline or denounce even one of them,” said SNAP’s outreach director, Barbara Dorris, in a statement. “But, just like his predecessors, he refuses to take this simple but crucial step toward justice, healing and prevention.”
In comments to the Register on March 25, Collins said the new commission represents “a new page in the Church’s approach to abuse,” but said she understands the concerns of other survivors.
“I have had highs hopes at times in the past, only to have them dashed, so I can understand if many survivors may dismiss it as an exercise in public relations,” she said. “For the sake of our children, it cannot be that. It must be a real and effective body which brings in genuine change, and my goal in accepting membership is to ensure that it does.”
Some observers noted that it still remains unclear if the commission will deal with the critical issue of disciplining bishops who cover up for abusers. Although canon law provides for sanctions if a bishop is negligent in carrying out his duties, critics point out that such punishments have never been imposed on a bishop for failing to report an abusive priest to police.
In his March 22 statement, Father Lombardi hinted that it might, saying the commission would look into both “civil and canonical duties and responsibilities” for Church personnel.
Collins, who has been a prominent campaigner for accountability in the Church, said there are still “many areas” where improvements are needed, such as the way survivors are treated when they bring their cases to the Church. She would also like to see “strong child-protection policies” in every diocese, “instead of the patchy coverage at the moment,” as well as greater “accountability of bishops” and the “removal and management” of perpetrators. Many more measures could also be taken, she said.
The ‘Next Step’
Speaking to the Register March 22, Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, one of the newly appointed panel members, said the Church has dealt with this issue, making clear that cover-ups of abuses will no longer be tolerated.
“In recent years, the message, from Rome at least, has clearly been that cover-up is not allowed, that there should be honesty,” he said. “It’s necessary to remind [people] that many clear things have changed, restrictions have become more severe, and I see this as a next step, not as something completely new.”
He doesn’t believe the Church’s approach needs to change drastically, as “it already has, since Benedict XVI started to take on the issue,” he said. “This is now a new phase, certainly, but since 2001 to 2010, many things, at least in Rome, changed drastically.”
Father Zollner, director of the Institute of Psychology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, also pointed out the enormity of the issue, involving many situations and cultures. “Sometimes, we Westerners forget there are more cultures than only ours, and our language may not be appropriate for other cultures, that our way of proceeding may not fit into every legal system,” he said.
He believes the commission “will ultimately have to face that and become a communication channel from Rome to local Churches and from local Churches to other local Churches … communicating and exchanging best practices.”
Some have criticized the panel for being all Catholic and without representation of victims who have left the Church. But this representation may change as the number of panel members increases. “In time, there will be a wider representation of opinions, expertise and nationalities on the commission,” said Collins. “I would be in favor of as many viewpoints as possible being included.”
She believes this commission will eventually “bring a significant improvement in the way the whole issue of child abuse is handled by the Church.”
If it doesn’t, she added, “it will have failed in its mission.”
Other members of the commission are: Catherine Bonnet, a French consultant in child and adolescent psychiatry; Claudio Papale, an Italian canon lawyer and official of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handles sex-abuse cases; Hanna Suchocka, a constitutional lawyer, former Polish prime minister and long-serving ambassador to the Holy See; and Jesuit Father Humberto Miguel Yanez, an Argentine who studied with Pope Francis as a seminarian and currently is head of moral theology at the Gregorian.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.