Collins: Abuse commission member's leave followed difficult discussions on group's purpose

by Joshua J. McElwee

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One of the members of Pope Francis' commission on issues of clergy sexual abuse has responded to the controversy sparked by the group's decision to ask another of its members to take a leave of absence from their work.

Marie Collins, an Irish abuse survivor who is one of the 17 members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, writes Wednesday in a statement for NCR that the leave of absence request arose after a "difference in understanding of the mission and the powers" of the group.

The decision taken by the group, she states, was to ask fellow member Peter Saunders to "take leave of absence to decide how he could contribute to the Commission."

Collins also strongly refutes allegations made by other abuse survivors that members of the commission believe the sexual abuse crisis has ended and is "behind us already."

"This is not true," she writes. "It's for the very reason that it is NOT behind us that the Commission members are working so hard to change things."

Collins is writing Wednesday in the first public response from a commission member to the controversy over the leave request for Saunders, a British abuse survivor and founder of the UK's National Association for People Abused in Childhood.

The commission issued a short statement Saturday announcing the decision, saying "it was decided" during the group's meeting in Rome this weekend that Saunders would take the leave.

But Saunders disputed that statement, telling reporters at a press conference later in the day that he did not accept such a leave and is now seeking a meeting with the pope to discuss the matter.

Collins writes that Saturday's vote arose following a discussion amongst commission members on the group's role in advising the pope.

"If a member cannot commit to work on policy development -- which undoubtedly is laborious, tedious and slow -- while the other members are deeply committed to it, an impasse is reached," she states.

The Irishwoman also indirectly addresses concerns other commission members had raised in the past about Saunders' comments on individual cases of clergy sexual abuse, particularly regarding Francis appointment of Osorno, Chile Bishop Juan Barros.

Sexual abuse survivors have alleged that Barros covered up sexual abuse by clergy when he was a priest years ago.

Saunders has mentioned the issue several times in press interviews. He told one outlet last week that it would be "outrageous" if the pope did not come to commission's meeting this weekend to discuss the issue.

"Any expectation that the Commission can attack or demand things of the Pope or insert themselves in particular cases ignores the actual mandate the group works under," writes Collins. "I understand the frustration, the emotion and the anger about what is still happening and should not be! But it cannot be addressed by the Commission."

Collins responds particularly to an allegation made by Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean clergy sexual abuse survivor who alleges that Barros witnessed his abuse by a priest years ago and did not appropriately report it to authorities.

Saunders had brought Cruz to Rome over the weekend, in hopes the Chilean might be able to meet with the pontifical commission. Speaking at Saunders' press conference Saturday, Cruz stated: "the Commission is a disgrace, they think rape and child abuse is something that is behind us already."

"This is not true," writes Collins. "It's for the very reason that it is NOT behind us that the Commission members are working so hard to change things."

"I have found the members of the Commission to be sincere individuals contributing from their own area of expertise to the development of new policies," she states.

The Irishwoman ends her statement by mentioning some of her own concerns about the commission's work.

While Collins says that she has confidence in the group and its members, she states: "I do not have the same confidence in those whose task it is to work with us within the Vatican and implement our proposals when approved by the Pope."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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