Cardinal Muller responds to Collins and defends not answering survivors' letters

Vatican City — The head of the Vatican's doctrinal congregation has defended his office's apparent refusal to reply to letters from victims of clergy sexual abuse, a decision which led the only abuse survivor on the pontifical commission about the matter to resign her post.

Cardinal Gerhard Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, says in a new interview it is "a misunderstanding" to think that his office "could deal with all the dioceses and religious orders in the world."

"It is good that personal contact with victims be done by pastors in their area," Muller said in an interview Sunday with Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper. "When a letter arrives, we always ask the bishop that he might take pastoral care of the victim, clarifying to him or her that the Congregation will do all that is possible to give justice."

Having the Vatican congregation respond to the letters, the cardinal states, "would not respect the legitimate principle of diocesan autonomy and subsidiarity."

Muller was speaking four days after Marie Collins, an Irish abuse survivor, resigned her post on Pope Francis' Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. In a statement for NCR March 1, Collins explained she was resigning due to frustration with Vatican officials' reluctance to cooperate with the commission's work to protect children and care for survivors.

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Collins said her decision to resign was immediately precipitated by one Vatican office's refusal to comply with a request from the commission, approved by the pope, that all letters sent to the Vatican by abuse survivors receive a response.

While Collins did not specify the Vatican dicastery in question in her NCR statement, Muller's interview seems to make apparent that it was his office that refused the request.

The cardinal also seems to reveal that several Vatican dicasteries resisted implementing a decision by Francis in 2015 to create a new tribunal to judge bishops who act inappropriately in sexual abuse cases.

While that tribunal was announced by Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the head of the commission, in June 2015, it was never created. Francis instead signed a new universal law for the church in June 2016 specifying that a bishop's negligence in response to clergy sexual abuse can lead to his removal from office.

In the interview, Muller calls the tribunal, which was approved by the pope, a "project" or "blueprint" for action.

"After an intense dialogue between the various [Vatican] dicasteries involved in the fight against pedophilia in the clergy it was concluded that to confront possible criminal negligence by bishops we already had the competence of the Congregation for Bishops," says the cardinal. "Beyond that the Holy Father can always entrust a special case to the Congregation."

Another Vatican official responded to Collins' resignation in a different manner. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican's Secretary of State, decried what he called a "shameful" resistance to the pope's initiatives on the part of some Vatican offices.

Parolin, who was speaking to reporters on the sidelines of an event in Florence, said he thought Collins' had resigned "to shake the tree," implying that she perhaps hoped her move might cause some bad fruit to fall to the ground.

Collins herself has rebutted one interpretation of her resignation, given by John L. Allen, Jr. at the Knights of Columbus-sponsored Crux website. Allen, writing March 1, had suggested that Collins' resignation came about because she was conflicted between her loyalty to abuse survivors and the pontifical commission.

"The article seems to imply that because I was sexually abused by a priest in childhood I am incapable of independent thought or action," Collins wrote in a reply on the Crux website Sunday.

"The article clearly uses a familiar device — when in difficulties divert attention away from the actual problem," she continued. "Survivors on the commission are not the problem — the resistance to change by clerical men in the Curia is the problem!"

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

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