A four-day conference for bishops and religious superiors on sexual abuse wrapped up in Rome Feb. 9. Entitled “Towards Healing and Renewal,” it was attended by more than 140 participants, including a large number of experts on the issue, as well as the Vatican’s top prosecutor in sex-abuse cases, Msgr. Charles Scicluna.

In a forthright speech, the promoter of justice at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith denounced a “deadly culture of silence, or omerta,” stressed that bishops who covered up evidence of abuse were guilty of ecclesiastical crimes, and that canon law doesn’t need to be changed but, rather, properly applied. The speech was warmly welcomed, especially by Marie Collins, who spoke about being abused by a priest when she was just 13 and while ill in the hospital in Ireland. She gave her reflections to the Register on the conference.

What has been your assessment of the conference?

I came with an open mind, not really knowing whether it was going to be just an exercise in public relations, but I have been impressed by what I’ve seen and heard.

I have been particularly impressed by Msgr. [Charles] Scicluna. Listening to him speak to the bishops yesterday, there could be no one in that room left in any doubt as to how they should be dealing with this whole crisis, how they should be dealing with survivors, and how they should be dealing with perpetrators.

That was music to my ears as a survivor: to hear it spelled out like that from someone in his position in the Vatican who can actually implement what he’s saying.

The criticism in the past has been that sanctions haven’t been enforced. How confident are you, after hearing his speech and this conference, that they now will be?

Because of the past, it’s very hard to be 100% hopeful and trust 100% it will be followed up.

What he said is so important. One of my questions early on in the symposium was that if you’re bringing in these guidelines ’round the world, which each bishops’ conference has been asked to do, there’s no point in having them unless there are some sanctions for a bishop if he ignores them. We’ve seen that in my own country, of bishops ignoring child-protection guidelines. So when I heard him say there are canonical penalties which can be used to sanction bishops but they haven’t been used, I think what he was saying is that they are going to be used.

Possibly, as Msgr. Scicluna said, through the nuncio?

Yes. If that actually happens, then we’re in a whole different situation than we’ve been in up to now.

The problem is they have been so long getting to this point. I think they’re now realizing that this is not going away; this is going to stay with them, and countries which haven’t had the problem so far probably will. I was heartened watching various bishops’ reactions, especially those from countries where they haven’t had the problem.

Some of them started the week thinking this really wasn’t something they needed to worry about, but as the week went on, I found them becoming — you could even see it through their questions — realizing this is something we’ve got to give a lot of thought to. We’ve got to know more about; we’ve got to have a greater understanding of it.

Also, that it’s perhaps going on but they don’t know about it?

That’s right. I’ve seen, just on a small level at home, bishops are so independent of each other. We have the impression they talk to each other all the time, but I think they all live in their own isolated worlds.

Msgr. [Stephen] Rossetti spoke about the fact that abuse was known in the Church in the year 307. What I’ve seen missing this week is all the old denials, all this blame on everything else but us — that it’s secular society; it’s homosexuality; it’s only a very small number — all those minimizations. There’s been none of that.

There’s been this admission that this has been a problem. We have dealt with it so badly, but now we really have to deal with this properly.

I think the driving force is really coming from Msgr. Scicluna. He definitely, in colloquial parlance, “gets it.” He knows what’s needed, and it’s good to see a man in that position saying what he has said. But I do believe that he couldn’t have said what he said without having the backing of the Pope and others in the Vatican.

He also worked with then-Cardinal Ratzinger when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Yes, so I feel he is coming from very solid ground.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens from here on. As I say, I’m a survivor; and I know there have been survival groups that have even been very negative about this symposium and even negative about me taking part, as it looks as if you’re colluding or betraying the cause.

But my feeling was: If you can give more understanding about how abuse harms a child, and if that can help any one of those men in there to handle cases in the future, then it’s worth doing. I do think we take it for granted they know all about it. They don’t.

Would you say, therefore, that that has been the great strength of this conference: that it has dealt with how to help the survivors and issues of prevention?

That’s right: the absolute protection of the child, which has been the paramount message all the way through, over and above the welfare of any accused priest. (It) has, for me, been a new experience.

Though, of course, there are injustices on that side regarding false accusations against priests.

There are injustices on that side too, but the focus is on the safety of the child and also the proper implementation of guidelines and proper cooperation with civil authorities — not just reporting, but actually following up and giving the civil authorities whatever information they want.

This is a step further than what I’ve heard before, and probably further than bishops would have expected coming here as well.

Referring to your speech, among other things, you explained how much not being believed affects the victim and the importance of bringing the abuser to justice. Could you tell us more about the significance of these to an abuse survivor?

[Being believed] is very important, because part of most victims’ experience is: “It was your fault”; there’s guilt involved. If you’re not believed that obviously makes it worse, because then the person you’ve told thinks it’s your fault — either that or they just don’t believe you, and it just makes things so much worse.

When the actual perpetrator in my case stood up in court and pleaded guilty as he did, somehow it helped so much to take away that feeling of guilt. Just hearing him admit that it was he who did the wrong — it was the beginning of healing.

Does seeing justice done help bring forgiveness?

Yes; once my abuser, anyway, pleaded guilty and actually asked for forgiveness (at that point I had been very angry at him and at the Church because my whole life was blighted up to that point), I was actually able to say: “Yes, I forgive you.”

It took him out of my head; I didn’t have to live with him [in my thoughts] anymore. And with therapy, you’re able to get to the point where you stop saying to yourself: “Why did this happen to me? What if this hadn’t happened? What way would my life have been (then)?”

But you know that [asking those questions] can do you so much harm; and if you get to the point where you can say, “Well, I can’t change it. I’m going to get on and enjoy the rest of my life,” it’s wonderful. I feel for victims who are so angry and depressed they can’t enjoy anything of life now. I would wish they would all get the help and the healing that they need.

They often also turn away from the Church, but you didn’t. Can you tell us why?

I didn’t turn away from the Church through my abuse, but the way I was treated by Cardinal [Desmond] Connell, my diocese [Dublin], when they protected my abuser, when they didn’t follow the guidance (they told me they didn’t have to), when they didn’t cooperate with the police, that’s when my practice of my religion became very difficult.

But I never lost my belief in God; and, I think, if you can, hang on to that. I never had any wish to join any other church; I just found it very difficult to practice my Catholic religion. It’s a little easier now.