Mary McAleese and Marie Collins call on Pope Francis to save Vatican child safeguarding group

Letter warns against attempts to discredit group’s founding member Hans Zollner, who has resigned

Former president Mary McAleese and Dublin abuse survivor Marie Collins have written to Pope Francis calling for “an independent, external review” of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

It follows the resignation of Jesuit priest Fr Hans Zollner, a member of the commission since it was set up in 2014.

He said it had yet to take seriously the principles of “transparency, compliance and responsibility” and that there were people in the Catholic Church who, “for personal or emotional reasons, create obstacles” in the fight against child abuse.

In their letter, both women expressed “deep concern” about the resignation from the commission “of its most experienced, globally respected and distinguished founding member Fr Hans Zollner SJ”.


They believed Fr Zollner’s integrity and honesty “to be beyond question. His commitment to child safeguarding within the church is second to none.”

The collapse of Fr Zollner’s confidence in the commission and its staff was “very disturbing”, they said, and warned against attempts by senior church figures since “to discredit Fr Zollner”.

In 2017, Ms Collins resigned from the commission as she felt “the attitude of a small number in the Vatican’s Curia is resistant to the work of the commission and has not been co-operative”. The same year, British abuse survivor Peter Saunders also resigned from the commission for similar reasons.

In their letter to Pope Francis, Ms McAleese and Ms Collins called on him to prevent the commission “from sinking without trace and taking with it the credibility of the Holy See”. They said that “with all due respect, no internal debate is likely to be adequate to the task of safeguarding the future of the church’s key safeguarding commission”.

They told the pope it was “no exaggeration” to say that the priest’s work “reflected great credit on your own commitment to child safeguarding and has, to a large extent, been key to such credibility as has accrued to the commission. With Fr Zollner’s withdrawal, its reputation faces existential damage, in our view,” they added.

“You, who appointed Fr Zollner, know of the extraordinary respect which his work has earned for him globally and which has been key in rebuilding the shattered trust of victims and the faithful,” they said, and warned against “recent attempts to use the press to insinuate mala fides on the part of Fr Zollner”. They described this as “nothing short of reprehensible. He deserves better.”

Attempts “to discredit Fr Zollner will fail; his work will continue; the commission will flounder and, unfortunately, if and when the Holy See next makes its state party periodic report to the [UN] Committee on the Rights of the Child, there is likely to be consternation in Geneva at this turn of events”, they said.

The commission “was, at its inception, a welcome and much-needed papal initiative. A decade on, it needs another papal intervention,” they said. Concluding the letter, Ms McAleese and Ms Collins added: “We wish you success in the handling of this unfortunate situation which can only cause more distress to victims, especially those whose hope had been raised only to be dashed again.”

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times