Vatican abuse commission member responds to leave of absence controversy

Marie Collins, pictured in a 2012 file photo (CNS/Tony Gentile, Reuters)

Marie Collins, pictured in a 2012 file photo (CNS/Tony Gentile, Reuters)

by Marie Collins

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Editor's Note: Marie Collins is an Irish sexual abuse survivor and a member of Pope Francis' Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. She wrote the following statement for NCR following the commission's decision Saturday that fellow member Peter Saunders take a leave of absence from their work. 

As a survivor of child clerical sexual abuse I spent many years silent, then many years speaking out to expose the way the Catholic Church had protected itself and abandoned children to the abusers in its midst. The anger I felt at the continuing reluctance by many Church leaders to report the perpetrators, to cooperate with civil authorities, to treat survivors with justice was overwhelming.

Then came the Pope's decision in 2013 to set up the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and my own appointment to that body. This Commission was being put in place to work on devising policy and structural change which could be recommended to the Pope to improve child protection in the future and ensure that all church leaders would implement these policies.

I had to decide if there was any hope that this Commission, through its advice to the Pope, would bring about permanent change within the universal Church or would it be a wasted effort, just a PR exercise. In the end I decided that if there was any hope at all, of protecting children in the future better than in the past, then I should take part.

You do not need to be a survivor to be passionate about the safety of children, about ending the horror of child rape and about change in the Church. 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.

They are working towards the implementation throughout the world of best practice in safeguarding, education in the area of abuse and justice for survivors. Policies produced are then recommended to the Pope. They are not pawns complicit in a PR exercise but good people with the safety of children at heart.

I have been asked about the Commission discussion and vote last Saturday at our Plenary. Why the silence and why have I not walked away? I have fought for transparency in the Church and in this case we must have transparency also, it is only fair to all those who feel they have once more been betrayed but the Church.

So I will now explain. I speak here on my own behalf and not as a representative of the Commission.

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

The discussion on Saturday arouse because of a difference in understanding of the mission and the powers of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. 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.

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. 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.

It was reported by the Reuters news agency after a press conference Saturday that Juan Carlos Cruz, a courageous Chilean survivor battling for justice, said "the Commission is a disgrace, they think rape and child abuse is something that is behind us already."

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

The vote was not planned beforehand, it was not anything to do with any Vatican department. The issue was brought to the meeting by one of the lay members. The vote only arose after a discussion which lasted nearly two hours.

I obviously cannot quote directly what was said without breaching the confidentiality of the members but topics covered included: the difficulty in sharing candid views openly in meetings if what is said is then to appear in the media or to be shared with others outside the Commission; the difficulty in working for the Pope while in public attacking him; the concern of members working on policies -- which are sensitive and in need of development -- that they may be made public or shared with those outside the Commission prematurely.

This is the context in which not always being able to say in the press exactly what you wish was addressed. Not that what might be said may be anti-Church but because it may breach the trust of other members and their work.

The main issue was whether there was willingness to become engaged in the policy work of the Commission or not. When Peter could not commit or give a time frame as to how long he might need to reflect, then a lay member of the Commission proposed a vote.

The proposal, as clearly as I can remember, was that he take a leave of absence to decide how he could contribute to the Commission. It was not a vote of no confidence. All present except myself voted for the proposal.

I abstained but understood why my colleagues were voting in the way they were. I was very sad as were many others that it had come to this very difficult point.

It was only then that the Commission members were made aware by Peter that Juan Carlos Cruz was in Rome. No one had any idea he was travelling to Rome, it seems with the belief that he would be meeting with the Commission.

The members decided to issue a press statement about the leave of absence as an act of transparency. If we had not, it could be said we were covering it up. I do not know by what means it was transmitted to the press but it was written by the Commission, not by any other Vatican entity.

I have worked on the Commission now since our first meeting in May 2014. It has not all been plain sailing. I have concerns about what is happening in the Vatican Curia in relation to our work.

As I said already I have every confidence in the Commission and its members. 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.

I feel strongly that anyone criticising the Commission is choosing the wrong target. There are many of good will in the Curia but unfortunately there are still those, at this top level, who worry more about their own fiefdoms and the threat of change than they do about the work the Commission is trying to do to protect children.

If the Commission is damaged from within, these forces are the beneficiaries -- not survivors or the children of the future.

[Marie Collins is a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.]

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