Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley vowed Thursday to make sure clergy sexual abuse victims have a voice on a Vatican panel addressing the crisis that rocked the Catholic Church, and he expressed frustration with resistance to change in some corners of the church.
His promise came a day after the lone clergy sexual abuse survivor serving on that papal commission resigned in exasperation with what she described as “shameful” Vatican foot-dragging.
“The voice of survivors is very important I think, and we have to consider what is the best way to ensure that” they’re included, said O’Malley, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston, in an unusually expansive telephone interview.
O’Malley said he shared some of the concerns about Vatican stonewalling expressed by Marie Collins, a clergy abuse survivor from Ireland who on Ash Wednesday resigned in frustration from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, drawing global attention. O’Malley is chairman of the commission.
“This is a time of transition in the Curia,” O’Malley said, referring to the Vatican bureaucracy. “Pope Francis is making changes, and a time of change is always difficult. There are people that are resisting those changes, and there are structures that need to be changed and adopted. So I certainly understand Marie’s frustration — I think we all feel frustrated at different times.”
Collins, in a statement accompanying her resignation, said the “last straw” was her discovery that a Vatican department had refused to answer all survivors’ letters, as the commission had recommended, despite the pope’s agreement.
“They need to get on board with that,” O’Malley said.
The commission is an advisory body on preventing and addressing clergy abuse that offers guidance to the Vatican and bishops’ conferences around the world. The departure of Collins, whom O’Malley called “an extraordinary contributor,” has been widely viewed as devastating for the church.
She has remained a respected voice in the survivor community for years even as she worked with the church on improving its policies. After resigning, she agreed to continue helping the commission educate prelates about safeguarding children.
A second survivor on the commission, Peter Saunders, was ordered to take a leave of absence last year after he clashed with other members.
O’Malley said he was nevertheless encouraged by the support for the commission’s work among many in the Curia. He pointed to the panel’s progress in conducting training for Vatican ambassadors around the world and for key Vatican departments.
“Certainly, the departure of Marie Collins is a blow to the commission, but I think it only increases our resolve to work harder for reform in the church, and our particular area, which is one of prevention and promoting best practices and training bishops and church leadership,” the cardinal said.
A recent three-day training the commission held in Mexico, he said, was attended by 500 people from 60 dioceses.
“We find that there is a lot of interest —a lot of people don’t know what to do,” he said. “It’s a topic that is a very difficult one, and in many parts of the world, there is a taboo to even discuss it.”
O’Malley said he has always incorporated people who suffered from clergy abuse in diocesan panels he convened to handle sexual abuse cases. But he did not anticipate “the kinds of pressure that survivors would be under” on a global stage at the Vatican.
He said ideally, survivors would be included as full-fledged members of the commission, but he said the panel would discuss the best way to get victims’ input at its next meeting in Rome later this month.
But doing that still may not be enough, said Stephen J. Pope, a theologian at Boston College.
“Appointing another survivor to the commission will not help unless they address the problems that Marie Collins points to, and that the cardinal points to,” Pope said.
O’Malley said he was grateful Collins had agreed to continue helping to teach bishops about protecting children.
Collins, in the statement she released, said she had lost hope that the commission could meet its mandate. A major source of frustration, she said, was the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican department in charge of church doctrine and clergy abuse cases.
The congregation objected to the commission’s recommendation that the Vatican set up a tribunal to hold bishops accountable for protecting children from sexual abuse.
The issue is crucial for the church: Bishops’ shielding of abusive priests led to the global clergy abuse crisis, and yet, more than 15 years after the crisis emerged, the Vatican has yet to show the world that it has a strong system for holding bishops accountable, advocates for abuse victims say.
After the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith balked at setting up the tribunal, Pope Francis dropped the idea and instead issued a letter explaining how existing church laws should be applied to hold bishops accountable for failing to protect children. Collins said it was unclear whether that has happened yet.
“It’s still untested,” O’Malley said, adding, “I think the message was very clear . . . that the church must deal with accountability of bishops.”
As a recent appointee to the congregation, O’Malley said he hoped he could “improve the communication and cooperation.”
Terence McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org, an online archive of the abuse crisis, said he was discouraged that hadn’t yet happened — despite the pope’s and O’Malley’s support.
“I hear what O’Malley is saying, but . . . it looks like the words are not connected to the actions, and that’s a very depressing thought,” McKiernan said. “They’ve got to admit mistakes they made with Pete and Marie, and do better, because this is not credible without real survivor participation.”
Francis also drew criticism from Collins and others in recent days following reports that the pontiff had reduced punishments for a handful of priests found guilty of abusing children, sentencing them to a lifetime of prayer and penance instead of defrocking them.
O’Malley said Francis’s decision reflects a debate within the church about whether it is preferable to expel abusive priests entirely “and then there is no possibility of monitoring his activity or having any kind of control over his behavior,” or keeping them within the fold, and under the watch of the church, but permanently barred from ministry.
“This is the issue — not that the Holy Father was returning anyone to ministry or backing down on zero tolerance,” O’Malley said. “He has been very, very clear about that.”