Preventing child abuse must outweigh fears about Catholic Church
Opinion: bringing a survivor’s voice to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors outweighed any other concerns
Marie Collins: ‘I have accepted for the same reason I decided to take up the invitation to speak at the Vatican’s Towards Healing and Renewal seminar on child abuse in Rome in 2012 – saving children from abuse is more important than any personal fear of hurt or humiliation.’ Above, Pope Francis. Photograph: Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters
I have been disappointed and let down often in my hopes for change in the way the Catholic Church handles the child abuse issue. At times I have despaired to the point where I wanted nothing more to do with the church. This was particularly true after my participation in the church’s failed Lynnott Committee, tasked with writing child protection guidelines in Ireland in 2003. Why then accept the appointment to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors?
I have asked myself the same question. Am I an incurable optimist or a fool? I hope I am neither. I have accepted for the same reason I decided to take up the invitation to speak at the Vatican’s Towards Healing and Renewal seminar on child abuse in Rome in 2012 – saving children from abuse is more important than any personal fear of hurt or humiliation. If there is the slightest chance that this commission can bring in change within the church that will lead to children being better protected and survivors being better treated then I cannot turn my back on it.
I have no doubt there will be many who will criticise my participation. Those who feel the commission is just a smoke screen or that the church is incapable of sincerity on this issue. They may feel I am, by participating, letting survivors down, colluding and betraying their fight for justice. I understand the feelings and respect those people’s right to their views. Since the day I reported my priest abuser I have followed my heart and instincts on how to fight the fight for justice. I have adhered to my principles and have always spoken the truth. I have accepted this appointment not to hurt anyone but to take the opportunity to carry forward the fight to the heart of the church itself. If I am wrong and in the future it is shown to have been a mistake I will not try to hide the fact: I will come forward and admit it.
At the Vatican symposium two years ago I spoke to bishops and congregational leaders from around the world. I spoke in clear terms of my personal experience of clerical sexual abuse. I talked also of the devastating effect it had on my life and family and of the destructive treatment later by the servants of the church, when trying to bring my abuser to justice. I spoke of what I felt was needed in the church in change of attitude and in practical terms to ensure others did not have the same experiences. My hope was that if even a small percentage learned something from my words and it influenced their child protection policies or how they interacted with survivors it was worth doing.
I was impressed with those responsible for organising the seminar. Their motivation clearly was to educate the leadership present on all aspects of the abuse issue that they would bring their learning back to their dioceses and congregations around the world. While some attendees did “get it” there was on the other extreme those who confidently stated that, for cultural reasons, abuse did not exist in their countries. There were also the entrenched old attitudes and beliefs in respect of “scandal” and “canon law” and the importance of “confidentiality”, all the things that have led the church to the situation it is in today. It was obvious what an uphill task it would be to move these men forward.
Two other members of the new commission were part of that seminar. Psychologist and psychotherapist Fr Hanz Zoller is involved in various bodies on child protection and his knowledge and obvious sincerity was impressive. Professor of psychiatry of disability Baroness Sheila Hollins, a practical woman who was a great support to me in navigating an unfamiliar environment, is very strong on the protection of the vulnerable adult from abuse, an area that must never be forgotten. I have no doubt both will bring a great deal of professional expertise to the commission and I am looking forward to working with them.
The survivor voice
When the commission was announced last December I felt, as did many others, the test of its intent would be when we saw who would make up its membership. My personal priority was to see that the survivor voice was included. I had no idea I would get the call for me to be that voice, so it came as a shock. I have received many messages of support since then from various and often opposing positions on the abuse issue and appreciate all who have taken the time to write. Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin’s statement of welcome for my appointment meant a great deal to me. I have always respected and supported the way he has dealt with child abuse in Dublin, often in the face of opposition from others in the diocese and wider church.
I am facing into this new task with some trepidation, fully aware of the responsibility involved. However, I am determined not to be intimidated by this or the high profile of fellow members of the commission. I will speak strongly for the changes I feel are needed as I have done so often in the past. If the commission does not bring real, practical change to the way the church handles child protection it will have failed in its mission and once more let down not only survivors and their families but ordinary Catholics who watch with hope.
Marie Collins is a survivor of abuse. She has been appointed to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors