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Abuse survivor fears February summit won’t deliver concrete action plans

By Sarah Mac Donald - 15 January, 2019

Marie Collins

The Church could be “a force for good” and contribute to raising the level of children’s safety globally, but it must first make a firm decision to lead by example in the area of safeguarding, abuse survivor Marie Collins has said.

In her address on Monday evening at the Mercy International Centre in Dublin to members of the “We Are Church Ireland” group, the former member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors underlined that thus far the Church has shown it is not proactive on safeguarding.

“It moves only when it must in reaction to revelations, reports and anger among the laity. Why is it so dysfunctional?” she questioned.

Appealing to the laity to get involved to help move the Church forward on safeguarding, she commented, “I do not believe change will happen if we wait for it to come from inside.”

She told members of the Catholic lay reform group that there was an “obvious need” for the involvement of the laity, especially women, at every level of the Church. “The laity have to drive this,” she said in the Q&A after her address. She also observed that those women now in positions in the Vatican tended to be very clericalised.

The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors had lost some of its most skilled members, all of whom were women, and they had been replaced by religious sisters who were perceived to be less “difficult” by the clerics in the curia.

Of the forthcoming summit on child safeguarding at the Vatican from 21 to 24 February, which was called by Pope Francis last September, Marie Collins said her “fear is that what we will hear is that there has been a great deal of prayer, reflection, and ‘fruitful discussion’. We will be assured that things are moving forward and there will be promises for the future. But we will see little in the way of on-paper concrete committed action plans.”

Ms Collins outlined seven recommendations that she believes can help achieve substantive change on child protection across the global Church.

These included the episcopal delegates agreeing to “a clear definition of what constitutes sexual abuse of a minor” and committing the Church to abiding by this definition in all cases.

She highlighted how the Vatican so far still has not clearly set out what actually constitutes sexual abuse of a minor in the view of the official Church.

“All we have is a canon law which is extremely vague speaking of ‘delicts against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue’.”

She contrasted that with the definition in the Irish Church Safeguarding Guidance, which states that “Sexual abuse occurs when others use and exploit children sexually for their own gratification or gain or the gratification of others. Sexual abuse may involve physical contact, including assault by penetration (for example rape or oral sex) or non-penetrative acts such as masturbation, kissing, rubbing and touching outside the clothing. It may include non-contact activities, such as involving children in the production of sexual abuse images, forcing children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways or grooming a child in preparation for abuse (including via e-technology). Sexual abuse is not solely perpetrated by adult males. Women can commit acts of sexual abuse as can other children.”

According to Marie Collins, at the moment, the vagueness of the canon law on what constitutes sexual abuse often leads to canon law trials not being able to bring in a guilty verdict in cases where most people would see clearly that abuse has occurred.

“It also affects things like ‘credible accusations’. If there is no consistent agreement across the Church as to what is sexual abuse of a minor, then how can we have any hope of consistent handling of the issue?” she challenged.

She also called for the Church to agree a clear definition of the term “zero tolerance” and commit to its implementation in line with the Pope’s promise that there would be zero tolerance across the Church for anyone who would perpetrate abuse on a minor.

“The term means different things to different people. Although the meaning of ‘zero’ seems obvious to us, those in the Church who give it any attention argue about what level of abuse is acceptable before zero tolerance is applied.”

When agreement is reached on the meaning of the term, the presidents of the episcopal conferences gathered at the February summit should commit to implementing it in their countries, Ms Collins said.

Elsewhere in her address, Marie Collins, who met Pope Francis last August as one of six Irish survivors of clerical and institutional abuse, said canon law should be updated to reflect the full definition of what constitutes sexual abuse of a minor and also to incorporate zero tolerance into its code.

On the issue of an accountability tribunal for bishops and religious superiors found to have covered up abuse or shielded perpetrators, Marie Collins said the Pope should make a clear statement at the February meeting “outlining what is the accountability process being used by the Church to hold bishops accountable if accused of negligence, protection of abusers or cover up. Who is investigating? Who are the judges? What are the penalties?”

Recalling how Pope Frances had told her that there had been guilty verdicts against bishops and he had removed the offenders, she said the Pontiff needed to name those who have a guilty finding against them at the February meeting, and to say what was their offence and what was their penalty.

“He also needs to commit to making these guilty verdicts public in the future.”

Having spent three years on the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors before she resigned in March 2017 over the curial resistance to the commission’s proposed reforms, she described some Vatican departments and their staff as “dysfunctional”.

“Clericalism is embedded in its fabric. It is inefficient, full of cumbersome bureaucracy, jealousies between departments which leads to lack of cooperation, those in leadership often chosen because of their titles or contacts rather than their skills or expertise.”

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