Abuse survivor Marie Collins: "Resistance" from CDF led to my resignation from papal commission
In this interview with America, Marie Collins, the Irish-born survivor who has served since 2014 on the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors (P.C.M.), explains why she resigned from this body and denounces “the resistance” and “lack of cooperation” with the commission by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (C.D.F.) and “some” Vatican officials. She also denounces the “clericalism” that she has found in some parts of the Roman Curia, and the “reluctance” of the C.D.F. to implement the commission’s recommendations even after Pope Francis had approved them. She concludes by reflecting on whether the resistance to the commission is in fact resistance to the pope. America spoke by phone to Ms. Collins in Dublin, this afternoon. The following is a slightly edited version of the interview.
Where did you see this “resistance” and “lack of cooperation” from the C.D.F.?
I saw it first when the C.D.F. refused to implement a recommendation of the commission related to the tribunal to hold bishops accountable for negligence. The pope approved it and then announced it, in June 2015. It was our first recommendation and for me as a survivor it was a most important, primary concern. The P.C.M. didn’t hear anything about it for a long time but then we discovered that it was sent to be implemented and, apparently, the C.D.F. found some legal difficulties with it. We were never told whether these were problems linked to canon law or civil law. The recommendation was scrapped.
You said the “last straw” for you came when the C.D.F. rejected a simple proposal from the commission—again approved by the pope—that asked that victims/survivors who write to the C.D.F. requesting information about progress in cases involving them should receive an acknowledgment of their letter.
I consider this recommendation a normal, everyday procedure, that you respect the person who writes a letter to you by acknowledging it. The pope instructed the Vatican departments to respond whenever a survivor or victim wrote to them. I only found out in January that one dicastery refused to change its current practice, which doesn’t include sending an acknowledgement to any survivor or victim who writes to them. What got me was the fact that the church is stating so often how much it is concerned for the pain, hurt and healing of victims and yet there is this refusal to send a letter of acknowledgment to a victim or survivor who has written to them. I saw no justification whatsoever for this refusal. For me it was the last straw.
I understand that you learned about this refusal when the commission received a letter signed by an archbishop of the C.D.F.
I won’t go into the details of how I found out. The commission made the recommendation and the response came back saying no, we are going to continue doing things the way we have always done them.
Is it true that the C.D.F. also refused to cooperate with the commission on the question of guidelines?
The problem was that the commission had spent two years working on this guideline template that would hopefully be the gold standard that was to be disseminated to all bishops’ conferences so that they could base their policies on it. The C.D.F. has its own template and has received documents from the bishops’ conferences after Msgr. Charles Scicluna called for every conference to send in their policies in 2011. The P.C.M. simply wanted to look at the current template and at these documents to see their strengths and weaknesses, and then to work on them and decide how a new template would be disseminated. This request for cooperation was refused.
So, you were receiving a no, no, no to your best recommendations?
I don’t know whether the objection was to the content of our guidelines, or whether the P.C.M. simply doesn’t have the right to involve itself in this work or it’s simply that the C.D.F. doesn’t feel a need to cooperate with the commission. To me it’s just appalling. The pope asked us to cooperate on improving child protection in the world. You can’t improve on something unless you’re able to compare what is there already and what you are proposing. You must work together, you can’t have two entities working independently of each other. The upshot is that the commission’s guidelines template is on our website, it has not yet been sent as a recommended document to the bishops’ conferences. From my point of view, any delay in improving safeguarding documents around the world is leaving vulnerable people and children in danger.
I think it’s shameful that a commission set up by the pope, and backed by him to improve child protection around the world, should encounter any hindrance from men at the top administration of the church.
You expressed your frustration by resigning, but there must also be great frustration inside the commission at this lack of cooperation.
Of course, but I wouldn’t speak for the other members. We’ve had other frustrations over these three years and have overcome other resistances. But I think it’s shameful that a commission set up by the pope, and backed by him to improve child protection around the world, should encounter any hindrance from men at the top administration of the church, particularly given that this issue was handled so badly in the past, and all the commission is trying to do is to not repeat it. And yet there are some men in the Vatican who are putting their own personal politics or clericalist views, or whatever it may be, to resist a commission that is trying very hard to improve things. There’s no excuse for this!
It’s widely recognized that your presence on the commission gave it great credibility, but your resignation now sends another signal that risks playing into the hands of those want to discredit Pope Francis’ commitment in this whole area.
I have tried very hard to work very constructively in the commission. I have been 100 percent behind its work at all times, and the pope has been 100 percent behind the commission and has supported us. If the explanation of the resistance to the commission is that the same faction is resisting the pope—and we know there are resistances to him—all I can say is that it is a disgrace because they’re making a political football of the lives of children.
When Francis set up the commission in 2014 you told me you had great hopes, but now you write, “I have come to the point where I can no longer be sustained by hope. As a survivor, I have watched events unfold with dismay.” Have you no hope at all?
I still have some hope. But it’s almost a mirror image of what happened when, 20 years ago, I went to my diocese to report my abuser. I had the hope and expectation that to keep the children safe they would take him out of his parish, and there would be a police investigation. That was my hope, but it was dashed. They did nothing of the sort. I was not naive when I joined the commission. I knew there would be difficulties, but I never expected they would be with the actual administrators in the Vatican. Since we were a pontifical commission, I expected we would have their complete cooperation. I foresaw there might be problems such as getting the message accepted by church leadership around the world, but I never, ever imagined that people in the Vatican, in the administration of the church, would be the problem. Maybe I was stupid, but I never expected that those who were meant to carry out the commission’s recommendations were going to be the stumbling block. That is what angered me most, and took away my hope. I don’t mean my hope has gone completely. I always hope things will improve. I hope the commission is still there, and I know there are good people working on it and that the pope backs them. I hope they will forge ahead and that my disclosing the facts might help to remove that blockage. I don’t know. I think it’s appalling where we’re at. I believe that at the end of the day you have to have laity in that administration and clericalism has to die.
So, you perceived clericalism in the negative responses from the C.D.F. and others in the Vatican?
I certainly think clericalism is at the root of the problem because there is still that attitude in some men in the curia that feel they know best and don’t seem to respect that there’s a commission which has men and women. Maybe they consider them as outsiders. I don’t think they respect the expertise that is on the commission, and this notwithstanding the fact that the pope obviously respects the commission and approves its recommendations. But clericalism leads people to believe that they are superior to others, and know better than others, and I think that is the attitude that is in some men in the Vatican who feel that they don’t have to cooperate, that they can do their own internal politics.
You said you feel convinced that Pope Francis understands the problem of the victims/survivors?
Yes, though I think he has made some mistakes in this area. His address to the bishops in America was very hurtful to survivors. That said, I think he really does get it. He really has learned over time. He understands the dreadful effect of abuse on people’s lives. I believe what he has said about abuse in the church, and “zero tolerance” is very sincere, I think he means every word of that, and wants to rid the church of abusers. Sometimes maybe he listens to the wrong advice and there have been missteps, but he does want to see the issue handled properly. He has backed Cardinal Seán O’Malley, who is president of the commission, and he has backed him all the way. So, I wouldn’t really put any blame on the pope for the problems, I think it’s just the perception that people have that when the pope says this will happen, then it happens. But we know that administrations, particularly in the Vatican with hundreds of years of experience, can slow things down or stop them altogether if they don’t have the willingness to see them through, and that’s what’s been happening.
Do you feel relieved or sad after resigning?
I feel O.K. I don’t regret having accepted the position on the commission. I’m glad to have worked with it for three years and to have been able to speak as a survivor and contribute to the work. Nor do I regret resigning, because at this point I think it was something I had to do to retain my own integrity, and I am not feeling in anyway doubtful, I feel I did the right thing. I’m hopeful. I do hope that maybe it will open some eyes to the fact that the church will need to learn.
Some see your renunciation as a blow to the pope because you were someone with credibility in the commission, but maybe it will speed up things, maybe it will lead to some changes in the C.D.F.
In giving credibility to the commission I was also giving credibility to these men in the church who were giving the impression they are working toward change. So then I am even more glad that I have resigned because they don’t deserve credibility, not if they are more interested in their own internal politics and faction fighting. Because I will not give credibility to that. I do believe the members of the commission are working as hard as they can, but if the outside world thought everything was going well, then I think it’s a good thing that I have resigned and shown that it is not. It might move things forward more quickly than if I had stayed.
Do you think the resistance that you have spoken about was resistance to the commission or to the pope?
I don’t know the answer for sure, but the commission is something the pope is supporting, and if you want to resist the pope you can resist something he sees as important. It may well be that the resistance to the pope is reflected in the resistance to the commission. I just know that there are men who did not want to cooperate with the work of the commission, and there should not be men in the church at that level who do not want change and are still living in the past.
But some in the Vatican did cooperate with the commission?
Oh yes, I don’t want to tar the whole Vatican with one brush, it certainly would not be fair. There are many in the Vatican who are very open and cooperating with the commission and are asking for our training program to come to their departments. I think that is excellent. It shows their willingness to move forward. The Congregation for the Clergy has decreed that every seminary should have child protection in their training for young seminarians. That is a very important step forward. It’s not as if the commission has achieved nothing. Much has been done and is being done. I would hate to suggest that everything is negative and dark, but that doesn’t mean that everything is right either.
When the commission was set up by Pope Francis in 2014 you were the first survivor he appointed to it. A second one was added later. Given your experience now, do you think survivors have a place on this commission?
I do. I disagreed with an article I read yesterday [on the website Crux] that said survivors should not be on a commission like this because they are trapped between the survivor world and the church. I don’t agree with that. But I do think that if you are going to have a survivor work on the commission, they need to be well prepared for it. They need to be very strong. They need to know exactly what the work entails, because I think the other survivor who is still on the commission, but on a leave of absence, was under the impression that it was a commission of investigation. He thought we would be investigating cases, but when he found out we were a policy-making body he became disillusioned, and that was the difficulty there.
So I think if a survivor is coming on to the commission they simply need to be somebody who is strong and able to work constructively with the members of the church, and not feel in anyway disadvantaged by the fact that they are a survivor. I never felt in any way that as a survivor, as this article yesterday suggested, that in anything I did, I had to look over my shoulder to see if other survivors approve or not. I don’t think that is fair or right. I mean if you are a psychiatrist on a commission, you don’t look over your shoulder to see if other psychiatrists agree with you or not. We survivors differ. We all have our life experiences. I had worked on guidelines here in Ireland for a couple of years, and I had worked on child protection offices.
I wasn’t brought on the commission simply by the fact that I had been abused, I was brought on the commission because I had skill and experience in the areas that were needed. Therefore, I think if they decide to put another survivor on the P.C.M. it should be somebody that has the experience of abuse but also has experience in working in areas that are relevant for the commission.
Marie Collins clearly is a person of integrity and intelligence. I share her frustration with the hard, border wall that she and the commission have come up against. It appears that the CDF is protecting its territory, the survivors just a small nuisance that may go away if sufficient inattention is paid to them. Ms. Collins is generous in her evaluation of Pope Francis efforts to address the sexual abuse of minors, but he must do more. He cannot wait for curial members to be thrown from their horses and see the light. The longer this issue is deflected, squelched, ignored the more survivors will suffer and the credibility of the hierarchy will only worsen, if that's even possible. Sexual abuse of a young person by a priest or religious is a soul killer. Soothing words - sorry, so sorry- is a lie. Words are a start but they have to be followed by actions that demonstrate that the victimized humans are more important than maintaining the heavy handed authoritarian style of the church bureaucracy. I suspect that many of them think, cynically, that in a hundred years all this bit of dust-up will be forgotten. It will not.
This appears to be a well-balanced and straightforward abbreviation of Ms. Collins's interview. Moreover, it confirms in my mind the arrogant clericalism I have witnessed all of my life. It also gives me some limited idea of what Pope Francis must be going through with these Vatican demagogues. I wonder who they think they are. From what I can tell, they would fit nicely in the Trump administration. Finally, I wish O'Malley the best. I hope he is not one of "them." He doesn't seem to be.
A difficult situation, but one that will require Pope Francis to address, in a a targeted but forceful way, the equivocating. The end of the interview does give a sense that some progress has been made. Given the enormity of the problem it is insufficient.
What Marie Collins is talking about is the tip of the iceberg. Many news articles have identified a significant resistance to the changes in the Roman Curia that Pope Francis wants. Progress has come to a snails pace and to some, nothing is being done to resolve this problem. Another problem is the CDF who is headed, at the moment, by a conservative prelate who is of the likes of St. JP II and Pope Benedict XVI. It is clear to me that the CDF does not agree with the vision of Pope Francis.
Clericalism is a major problem of the Vatican that only Pope Francis can resolve. Let's pray he finds a way to change hearts as soon as possible.
Michael...I suspected as much, but am no longer on the inside, so did not know for sure that progress is actually not progress(ing!). I hope you are correct that Francis can resolve the issue but I am not certain they would reject a deposition attempt if he really came down hard on them.