Marie Collins Highlights Ongoing Tensions Over Vatican’s Handling of Clergy Abuse

The abuse survivor’s resignation this month from the Vatican commission to protect minors has focused public attention on the issue.

Marie Collins speaks to the press in 2012.
Marie Collins speaks to the press in 2012. (photo: David Kerr/CNA)

VATICAN CITY — The resignation of Marie Collins from the Vatican’s commission helping to protect minors from clerical sex abuse is being seen as another wake-up call for the Vatican in how it deals with such cases.

One of just two clerical-abuse survivors appointed to the 17-member Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors when it was established in 2014, Collins resigned as a member March 1, citing a “lack of cooperation” by the Roman Curia as a principal factor.

In her March 1 resignation statement, she criticized the Vatican for a “lack of resources” and “inadequate structures,” as well as “slowness” and “cultural resistance.” She also cited the failure of the Vatican to distribute the commission’s template for safeguarding guidelines to national bishops’ conferences.

An Irish native, Collins added that the “most significant problem” was reluctance in some of the Curia to implement the commission’s recommendations, despite the Pope’s approval. Specifically she lamented the refusal of one dicastery “to ensure all correspondence from victims/survivors receives a response.”

“I have come to the point where I can no longer be sustained by hope,” Collins wrote. “As a survivor, I have watched events unfold with dismay.”

Collins’ resignation followed that of Peter Saunders, the second abuse victim on the commission, who was asked to step down in February 2016 because of disagreements between him and other commission members.

The departure of Collins, who continues to help the commission educate prelates about safeguarding children, provoked concern from Church leaders who have key Vatican roles in addressing clergy abuse.

Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the commission’s chairman, praised Collins for her work and vowed to “listen carefully” to her concerns. In March 3 comments to The Boston Globe, he stressed the “voice of survivors is very important,” and the “best way” has to be found to ensure they’re included in the continuing discussion and implementation of the best policies that protect children.

Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, a commission member and head of the Center for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, told the Register March 13 that survivors themselves should determine how much they should be involved in the commission’s work, but added that the issue would “certainly be part of the discussion” during the body’s plenary meeting taking place this week.


The Role of the CDF

Soon after Collins’ resignation, it emerged that central to her grievances was the role of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). In March 11 comments to the Register, she said the department in the congregation working on abuse cases “is under pressure because of the length of time it takes them to get cases through the system.” This means it can “take years” for them to be dealt with, making it “very difficult not only for the person bringing the complaint, but also for the accused.”

She was more forthright in a strongly worded March 14 statement, written to address comments that the CDF’s prefect, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, had given in a March 5 interview with the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera.

The cardinal had said he could not understand “the talk of lack of cooperation” between the CDF and the commission and explained his views that correspondence with victims is the responsibility of local bishops or religious superiors. In response, Collins pointed out that face-to-face meetings between CDF officials and commission members were slow to materialize and that the pontifical commission never received any formal reports from Cardinal Müller’s congregation. Further, she said that the CDF’s sole representative on the commission, canon law professor Claudio Papale, stepped down in 2015. (Papale has not been replaced on the commission, but Pope Francis did appoint Cardinal O’Malley earlier this year as a member of the CDF.)

Collins also rejected Cardinal Müller’s assertion that, based on the principle of subsidiarity, it is primarily up to bishops to acknowledge and respond to letters from victims, with guidance given by the CDF. She had understood that the CDF saw no problem in taking that responsibility on itself, and the commission members expected the congregation would simply say such a letter “had been received and would receive attention.”

She also wondered why the CDF was reluctant to cooperate on producing safeguarding guidelines.


Vatican Perspectives

Cardinal O’Malley told The Boston Globe that he understood Collins’ frustration, adding that part of the problem is a resistance to change during a “time of transition in the Curia.”

In his interview with Corriere della Sera, Cardinal Müller said the competence of the commission is very different from that of the congregation, which has the responsibility for handling “canonical processes for clerics accused of the most serious crimes.” He pointed to Cardinal O’Malley’s recent appointment as a member of the CDF as a sign of the congregation’s continual contact with the commission and its efforts to “always achieve the most effective measures for the protection of minors in the Church.”

Speaking of correspondence with victims, however, he said such pastoral care is the responsibility of the bishops: “It is a misconception that this dicastery, in Rome, can take care of all the dioceses and religious orders in the world. That would not respect the legitimate autonomy of the dioceses or the principle of subsidiarity.”

The cardinal asserted that his congregation can provide counsel to national bishops’ conferences for pastoral guidelines for the protection of minors and handling the legal aspects related to accused clergy. But he added, “The complaints [about the congregation] are based on a misconception of our true competence: The congregation acts as an apostolic supreme tribunal on the matter.”

Nonetheless, Collins’ resignation has effectively forced the Vatican into a phase of self-evaluation, prompting officials to ask themselves if they’re doing enough and what more could be done.

Speaking on condition of anonymity in order to speak frankly, a Vatican source did not dismiss Collins’ concerns, but echoed Cardinal Müller’s explanation that a substantive pastoral reply to victims should be left to the local bishop.

According to the inside source, one possible solution being considered is to have an ombudsman who would take responsibility for correspondence with victims, thereby allowing a consistent response.

The issue of creating and implementing safeguarding guidelines is under consideration, especially over whether the CDF should have an office to focus on it.

Officials recognize that local tribunals can take too long to deal with cases, and this is an area that the Vatican could help reform. They also acknowledge that some local bishops should have been prosecuted by now, for failures regarding their handling of known clergy abusers.

“On the one hand, people criticize Rome — in part, rightly so — which does not handle the topic of child abuse coherently,” Father Zollner told the German bishops’ website, “On the other hand, bishops’ conferences continue to refuse to implement instructions from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from the year 2011.” Rome, he stressed, “has no means to sanction entire bishops’ conferences.”


A Phase of Evaluation

“The least we can say is that Collins’ resignation is a serious wake-up call,” said Kurt Martens, professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America.

Observing that the exchange between Collins and Cardinal Müller is one “that should have taken place privately and some time ago,” he said that, in spite of efforts to reform the Roman Curia, “the communication and collaboration between the various dicasteries can certainly be improved,” and what the commission can and cannot do needs to be more clearly defined.

Martens is also mystified as to why a tribunal for bishops who covered up clergy abuse was announced by Pope Francis in 2015, only to be scrapped in 2016 before it had started.

“You do not communicate about it until there is a plan ready and the norms and statutes for that tribunal are ready to be rolled out, hopefully after some serious consultation,” he said. “That consultation is needed to make it work: You want to hear the voice especially of those who oppose such a tribunal, and you make the project better.”

Furthermore, he said the norms promulgated afterward in lieu of the tribunal “are not really impressive, to say the least.” Referring to Pope Francis’ 2016 motu proprioLike a Loving Mother,” which sought to deal with negligent bishops and “grave causes,” Martens pointed out that it allows a negligent bishop to “choose his own penalty, so to speak, by simply resigning.” The novelty is “totally different from a tribunal that would come to the conclusion that a bishop has been gravely negligent and is removed from office,” he said.

Looking to the future, Father Zollner believes that “intervention and prevention” should remain a “top priority in the planning and providing of resources in the Church worldwide” and says that the Church should “globally be a front-runner in the safeguarding of minors,” as she already is “in a few areas of the world.”


Justice and Mercy

However, Collins, like others, is concerned about recent revelations that Pope Francis has reduced the penalties of some convicted clerical abusers, consistent with his emphasis on mercy.

“Although he has not put any priest back into ministry, so the safety of children is not involved, it sends a very poor message to those who have been victims and also, of course, to potential perpetrators,” Collins told the Register. “Although the Pope may see it in terms of mercy, others see it as in conflict with his very strong words on abuse.”

Cardinal O’Malley has said Francis’ decision “reflects a debate within the Church about whether it is preferable to expel abusive priests entirely,” thereby losing the ability to monitor their behavior, or keep them under the watch of the Church, but permanently bar them from ministry. The Holy Father, he said, has been “very clear” that he is not “returning anyone to ministry or backing down on zero tolerance.”

Martens agreed, but added it is “enormously dangerous and sets quite a precedent” to interfere in individual cases and change a decision after a judicial and administrative process.

Overall, however, Collins appears content with the Pope’s leadership on the issue.

“I think the Pope does understand the horror of abuse,” she said, adding that his public statements concerning zero tolerance are “important, as they tell local Church leaders how he expects abuse cases to be handled by them.”

But she told the Register she wants such words “backed by actions, so any slowness in resolving cases and bringing justice to victims, or the ability to move forward the commission he set up to advise him, need to be addressed.” 

She also would like resources provided “in line with the enormity of the problem.”

Collins said, “At the moment, in my view, this is not the case.”


Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.