Collins’s resignation doesn’t mean pope’s anti-abuse body is not working

Marie Collins with Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston

Marie Collins with Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston

[Austen Ivereigh in Rome] The resignation of the Irish abuse survivor, Marie Collins, from the Vatican’s Commission for the Protection of Minors (see statements below), is doubtless a major blow to the perception of the pope’s commitment to creating a safeguarding environment in the Church that is a model for other institutions.

The commission was created in early 2014 to advise the Pope on developing better practices and policies in the universal Church for tackling abuse. Its credibility was doubtless assisted by the presence of Collins, who was one of the original nine members of the commission. She is a figure of considerable authority, admired for her willingness to act as a bridge between clerical sex abuse survivors and the Church, and for her dedication to the cause of reforming its culture.

Although he is still technically on leave of absence, the other survivor on the commission, Peter Saunders, stood down in February last year (see CV Comment), meaning that Collins’s departure deprives the body of the voice of those who have directly experienced abuse. Yet the other expert members of the commission have great credibility and expertise in this field, and there has been talk for some time of creating a separate body that could articulate survivors’ experiences to the commission.

But while it is a blow, it is important not to rush to the conclusion that the commission is not working. In her interview with Crux explaining the decision, Collins herself acknowledges that commission’s work has been important, and will go on. In September last year, the commission gave a summary of that work, showing it has been highly effective in a number of areas, notably education and accountability.

In her statement below, which is further spelled out in an editorial for the National Catholic Reporter (NCR), Collins blames the Vatican bureaucracy, the curia, rather than Pope Francis. Although she says she will continue to assist the Church in this area, she says she is standing down from the commission in protest at the curia “hindering and blocking” the commission’s work. She is adamant that Pope Francis has accepted all the commission’s reccomendations, but that the curia has frustrated their implementation. In a reference to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), she says that “the lack of co-operation … has been shameful.”

To NCR she has described “lack of resources, inadequate structures around support staff, slowness of forward movement and cultural resistance” before citing “the most significant problem” as “the reluctance of some members of the Vatican Curia to implement the recommendations of the Commission despite their approval by the pope.”

Because her resignation comes on the heels of an Associated Press story about Pope Francis seeking to soften certain sentences of abusive priests — a story we will return to below — a connection will naturally be made between the two. Yet her decision to resign, as is clear from the statement below, is prior to that story; and in any case, she is not blaming Pope Francis.

What, then, are the areas where she believes the curia has dragged its feet or actively obstructed the commission?

One is lack of resources. The Australian commission member, Kathleen McCormack, recently testified that the commission’s budget is far too small for the work it has to do. That is undoubtedly true, but according to commission sources the Holy See has not yet refused any of its funding requests. Some of what the commissioners would like to do — special research projects etc — will require special funding, but the applications for funding have not yet been made.

Another grievance is her belief that the commission’s proposal for a tribunal for judging bishops who have been negligent or have covered up in cases of clerical abuses was jettisoned. Yet there is confusion on this point. The tribunal — at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) — already existed; the commission proposed that it could be used for the judging of bishops in these cases; the CDF raised no objection, and the tribunal remains available for that purpose, whenever a judicial process  — that is, in cases which require a trial because there are opposing views on the evidence — is required.

Part of the confusion on this point is that in his motu propio of June last year, ‘As a Loving Mother’ (see CV Comment) the pope gave four Vatican congregations the power to investigate and ask the pope to remove bishops in cases of negligence. This appeared to some to be an alternative option to the tribunal, but it wasn’t. Rather, it made it easier for action to be taken against bishops in cases where no trial was required because the evidence was clear. Because the process would be an “administrative” one (the canonical term for a process that doesn’t involve a trial), it would be faster and easier. (Collins tells NCR that “it is impossible to know if it has actually begun work or not”).

Although at the time US-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said it was skeptical about the motu propio, Collins herself welcomed it, saying she hoped it would “succeed in bringing the accountability survivors have waited for so long.” But later, in September last year, she appeared to believe that the motu propio had in effect put paid to the tribunal. “After [the tribunal] was announced last year, I was really positive about that and then when it sort-of didn’t go anywhere I was quite down-hearted,” she told NCR. But she added that while the tribunal “is no longer on the cards, I think the new process is actually more wide-ranging”, and that this was “very positive for everyone on the commission because it’s one thing that we said at the very beginning we were going to deal with: bishops’ accountability.”

A third possible point of contention, mentioned in both the NCR and the Crux interview with Collins, is that a template for guidelines for dioceses on the prevention, detection and response to abuse has not been sent by the Vatican to dioceses around the world, as the commission had requested.

The template is available on the commission website. In fact, the commission did not ask for it to be sent to the dioceses, but for clarification on which Vatican authority will be responsible for overseeing it. The answer to this is expected “soon”, according to my sources, but the slowness of the response of the CDF has further contributed to Collins’s frustration.

Yet overall it is not true to say that the Vatican has not cooperated with the commission. In many ways, given its novelty, the cooperation that the commission has received has been notable. The commission itself is not part of the Curia; it is not a “dicastery”, as curial departments are called. It does not operate on behalf of the Holy See, and juridically other Vatican departments are not expected to work with it as if it were.

This has been particularly frustrating for Collins in the case of the CDF, which she accuses of refusing to cooperate in the case of one simple recommendation put forward by the commission, which she says Pope Francis directed all Vatican departments to follow, namely that all correspondence from survivors receives a response. The CDF’s refusal was the “last straw” that led to her handing in her letter of resignation.

“I find it impossible to listen to public statements about the deep concern in the church for the care of those whose lives have been blighted by abuse, yet to watch privately as a congregation in the Vatican refuses to even acknowledge their letters”, she said in the editorial, adding: “It is a reflection of how this whole abuse crisis in the church has been handled: with fine words in public and contrary actions behind closed doors,” she said.

However, sources in the Vatican say the request that all correspondence be acknowledged will be fulfilled in the future.

Because the commission exists as an advisory body, intended to assist the pope in improving policies and procedures, it lacks the power to hold the Vatican to account. It is not an outside auditing body, such as MoneyVal, the European Union’s anti-money laundering agency, which the Vatican brought in to help clear up its finances.

As John Allen points out at Crux, this is why it is difficult for the commission to include abuse survivors’ advocates. Such advocates are under enormous pressure from survivors to show that they are holding the Church to account and delivering change, and the relentlessness of that pressure is surely one of the factors in leading Collins to decide to resign.

The question must therefore be asked, as Allen does, whether it was ever feasible to include survivors, and the fact that they were demonstrates, again, that the status and purpose and lines of accountability of the commission and its status within the Vatican need to be better defined, and the commission itself reconstituted on a firmer and clearer basis.

A revision of its statutes and a rethinking of the commission’s role is expected at the end of this year. The commission’s work remains, predominantly, that of promoting best-practices and strict guidelines across the Church, and especially that of the developing world, and this is likely to be its future focus. As Allen says, “the exit of Marie Collins isn’t necessarily the end of the road in terms of abuse survivors being represented on the pope’s commission. It could actually mean a transition to a more honest, freer, and less personally conflicted way of doing it.”

Meanwhile, however, the question of how the Church punishes abusive priests will remain under scrutiny. The story recently by Associated Press that certain priests had their laicization sentences reduced following interventions by Pope Francis using the argument of mercy has inevitably raised concerns that the oft-touted “zero tolerance” of abusive priests is being in some way eroded by an inappropriate application of the pope’s theology of mercy.

Two points, however, need to be made here. The first is that, while the story is likely to be true, the fact that it was leaked shows that the intention of officials who spoke to AP was in some way to harm Pope Francis. The CDF’s processes are governed by the highest form of confidentiality in canon law, known as the pontifical secret, and the violation of that confidentiality is a very serious matter.

The second point is that the lesser punishment of a lifetime of prayer and penance is still a very serious form of punishment. It is the canonical punishment meted out, for example, to Maciel, the most notorious abuser of recent times, by Benedict XVI. It means that the priest can no longer function as a priest. He is removed from ministry, confined to a place of retreat, and cannot say Mass or in hear Confessions or have contact with the People of God.

The only difference between a lifetime of prayer and penance and laicization, in fact, is that in the second case, the priest is stripped of his priestly powers, and ceases to be the responsibility of the diocese or order to which he belongs. Laicization is automatic in cases where the priest has served lengthy prison sentences, but is not automatic in other cases. Mercy, in this case, allows for the possibility that a priest may convert and change and be reconciled with God, perhaps after many years. It is a hard judgement for the CDF tribunals and the pope to make, and it is not surprising that the pope has come to a different judgement in some cases.

But the important point remains. A punishment of prayer and penance is still a severe punishment, one that protects the vulnerable just as much as laicization, and arguably more so.

STATEMENTS from (1) Marie Collins, (2) The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors (3) its president, Cardinal Sean O’Malley

(1) Marie Collins

I sent my letter of resignation (copied to Cardinal O’Malley), from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, to Pope Francis on the 9th February 2017 to have effect from 1st March 2017.

Since the beginning of the Commission in March 2014 I have been impressed with the dedication of my colleagues and the genuine wish by Pope Francis for assistance in dealing with the issue of clerical sexual abuse. I believe the setting up of the Commission, the bringing in of outside expertise to advise him on what was necessary to make minors safer, was a sincere move.

However, despite the Holy Father approving all the recommendations made to him by the Commission, there have been constant setbacks.

This has been directly due to the resistance by some members of the Vatican Curia to the work of the Commission. The lack of co-operation, particularly by the dicastery most closely involved in dealing with cases of abuse, has been shameful.

Late last year a simple recommendation, approved by Pope Francis, went to this dicastery in regard to a small change of procedure in the context of care for victims/survivors. In January I learned the change was refused.

At the same time a request for co-operation on a fundamental issue of Commission work in regard to safeguarding was also refused. While I hope the Commission will succeed in overcoming this resistance, for me it is the last straw.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley has invited me to continue to be part of training projects including those for the Curia and new bishops and I am happy to accept. This will be the area on which I will now concentrate.

I wish my colleagues on the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors the very best for the future.

Marie Collins

(2) The PCPM

On Monday, February 13, 2017, Mrs. Marie Collins, a Member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors [PCPM] advised Cardinal Sean O’Malley, President of the PCPM, of her intent to resign from the Commission effective March 1, 2017.

Mrs. Collins, a Member of the Pontifical Commission since its inception in 2014 is a survivor of clerical abuse, and consistently and tirelessly championed for the voices of the victims/survivors to be heard, and for the healing of victims/survivors to be a priority of the Church.  In discussing with the Cardinal, and in her resignation letter to the Holy Father, Mrs. Collins cited her frustration at the lack of cooperation with the Commission by other offices in the Roman Curia.

Mrs. Collins accepted an invitation from Cardinal O’Malley to continue to work with the Commission in an educational role in recognition of her exceptional teaching skills and impact of her testimony as a survivor.

The Holy Father accepted Mrs. Collins resignation with deep appreciation for her work on behalf of the victims/survivors of clergy abuse.

The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors was established by Pope Francis in March of 2014. The Chirograph of His Holiness Pope Francis states specifically, “The Commission’s specific task is to propose to me the most opportune initiatives for protecting minors and vulnerable adults, in order that we may do everything possible to ensure that crimes such as those which have occurred are no longer repeated in the Church. The Commission is to promote local responsibility in the particular Churches, uniting their efforts to those of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, for the protection of all children and vulnerable adults.

(3) Cardinal O’Malley

“On behalf of the Members of the Commission I have expressed to Marie Collins our most sincere thanks for the extraordinary contributions she has made as a founding member of the Commission.  We will certainly listen carefully to all that Marie wishes to share with us about her concerns and we will greatly miss her important contributions as a member of the Commission.  As the Commission gathers for the plenary meeting next month we will have an opportunity to discuss these matters.  With the members of the Commission I am deeply grateful for Marie’s willingness to continue to work with us in the education of church leaders, including the upcoming programs for new bishops and for the dicasteries of the Holy See.  Our prayers will remain with Marie and with all victims and survivors of sexual abuse.”

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