Abuse survivor says laity must lead church reform

By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald

Irish-born, clergy sexual abuse survivor Marie Collins, who quit a Vatican panel in 2017 when she believed it was not fulfilling its stated mission to establish ironclad, global guidelines to protect children from abuse, told a New Orleans audience Tuesday night that laypersons will have to force the institutional church to make concrete changes in accountability and transparency.

Speaking in New Orleans as part of a five-city, “Catholic Tipping Point” tour of the U.S., Collins, 72, said it took nearly 40 years of depression, anxiety and personal isolation before she began coping with the abuse she suffered at 13 years old when she was molested in a Dublin hospital by a Catholic priest.

As traumatic as the physical abuse was, Collins said, a church culture of secrecy and lies by those in position to bring her abuser to account and be punished for his actions, and the attempts by the institutional church to cover up the abuse and tarnish her reputation, have left her hanging onto her faith “with my fingernails.”

“The Catholic Church, at this point, has reached a situation where there is such a systemic dysfunction within it that the change has to be root and branch – it can’t be tinkered with around the edges,” Collins told an audience of 60 at the Unitarian Universalist Community Church in New Orleans. “If those good priests and good men in the church – and there are many – cannot change it from the inside, then the only way to change it is with pressure and challenge from the Catholic laity.

“Unfortunately, I met so many in the hierarchy who have paid lip service to that – that we are the people of the church – but when it comes down to it, they don’t believe it. Many in the Vatican believe if they cansimply say the right things and appear to be doing the right things and make what look like radical changes, then all will be well. They concentrate a lot on good optics. We need real change, not something that looks like change.”

Because of her role in Ireland as an advocate for clergy sex abuse victims, Collins was appointed in 2014 to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, but she resigned three years later because she felt Vatican leaders were obstructing the panel’s work. The commission, composed of clergy and many lay experts in psychology and psychiatry, was  originally structured to report only to Pope Francis, not to the Vatican’s secretary of state, which had been the normal process for most papal commissions.

“We were told in the beginning it was to be independent, responsible directly to the pope,” Collins said. “We were to be in total control of our work, and every resource needed would be put into the work. There was a big fanfare. This new commission was going to solve the child protection problems and bring a whole new experience into the church.”

Collins said she abandoned hope for the commission when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith refused to release to the panel input it had received from bishops’ conferences around the world on how they were dealing with the sex abuse issue in order to see the strengths and weaknesses of the various plans.

“We were drawing up a child-protection policy which was going to be, hopefully, the gold standard, and we wanted it to be disseminated around the world,” Collins said. “We wanted a basic template that they would have to use when they were setting up their own guidelines, with sanctions involved if they didn’t.”

But the congregation refused the commission’s request, she said.

“They told us, in writing, that we couldn’t have the documents because they were confidential, and that, for me, was the end,” Collins said. “Together we could have produced the change that was needed.”

When Collins resigned from the commission, she said “history repeated itself,” with church leaders ascribing motives to her decision that were not true.

“Vatican sources – those wonderful, anonymous sources – briefed the media that I was having emotional difficulties and I couldn’t handle the work, and the subtext, again, was that I was a woman and a survivor and how could you really expect her to be able to do such a high-level job?” Collins said.

Collins said similar things had been said about her on the local level in Ireland when she had reported her abuse years later. Thinking it would help, her counselor advised her to go to a priest and tell him what had happened.

As soon as she broached the subject, the priest told her, “Don’t tell me his name. I don’t need to know his name – because I think it was probably your fault.”

“I will never forget those words,” Collins said. “After that, I stood outside and remember thinking, ‘I knew it was my fault.’”

In one of his airplane press conferences, Pope Francis was asked about Collins’ highly publicized disappointment that the commission had been folded into the Vatican’s curial structure and had been watered down by eliminating its most active members.

“He said, ‘Marie Collins is fixated on accountability,’”  Collins said. “And when I read that, a lot of people were angry on my behalf, but I wasn’t because I thought, ‘Yeah, I am.’”

During her trip to New Orleans, Collins spoke with Archbishop Gregory Aymond.

“I appreciate, first of all, that she has been through a lot in terms of her own abuse, for which we ask God’s healing,” Archbishop Aymond said. “We appreciate the attention and the spiritual support she has given to the victims and the survivors of abuse. We want to make sure our safe environment programs and the work of our independent review board are effective, which is what Marie wants as well. I appreciate her reaching out to us to share her experiences.”

“He welcomed me and we had a very pleasant conversation,” Collins said after her talk. “We exchanged some views. I found him to be positive. I don’t know enough about the diocese, but my impression was a good one. There are good men in the church who want to do the right thing and can see the direction this needs, but they can’t do it on their own. I think the laity has to get in there and really work with them and behind them and challenge those who don’t want to change and don’t want to move on into the 21st century, which is where we are now.”

Collins will finish her “Catholic Tipping Point” tour in Los Angeles on Friday. She also spoke in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Chicago.

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.


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