The only abuse survivor on Pope Francis’ commission to address the clergy sexual abuse crisis resigned Wednesday, citing a “shameful” lack of cooperation from some within the Vatican bureaucracy.
The departure of Marie Collins puts pressure on Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley — the archbishop of Boston and a new member of a Vatican department handling the abuse crisis — to marshal support for the commission inside the church’s fractious power structure.
Collins’s resignation highlights what many see as a stubborn resistance to fully address the clergy abuse crisis four years into Francis’ papacy and more than 15 years after it exploded in Boston.
“Now, they have a mess on their hands,” said Nicholas Cafardi, dean emeritus of the Duquesne University School of Law and an original member of the US Catholic bishops’ National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Youth.
Collins, he said, “gave credibility to that commission and [her resignation] is a substantial blow to that credibility. They need to do something quickly to restore credibility, otherwise this will be seen as another type of Vatican window dressing.” He said he had hoped the commission would offer universal church policies for preventing and dealing with clergy abuse.
Collins, an Irish woman who suffered abuse by a priest during a hospital stay as a child, is a widely respected and blunt-spoken voice in the survivor community. She said in a statement that the commission’s work has been hampered by “constant setbacks” that were “directly due to the resistance by some members of the Vatican Curia to the work of the commission.”
She pointed in particular to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the department O’Malley recently joined, which blocked implementation of one of the abuse panel’s major recommendations. The commission had suggested establishing a tribunal to get rid of bishops who failed to protect children.
Survivors’ groups and other critics have been skeptical from the outset of the commission’s ability to effect change because it is an advisory panel with no authority to make rules.
The “last straw,” Collins said in a lengthy statement to the National Catholic Reporter, was the recent discovery that church functionaries had not followed “one of the simplest” recommendations by the commission: that the Vatican respond to every letter sent by a survivor.
“I find it impossible to listen to public statements about the deep concern in the church for the care of those whose lives have been blighted by abuse, yet to watch privately as a congregation in the Vatican refuses to even acknowledge their letters!” Collins said. “It is a reflection of how this whole abuse crisis in the church has been handled: with fine words in public and contrary actions behind closed doors.”
Collins resigned as of March 1 — Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, a season of repentance and deep reflection for Catholics.
A spokesman for O’Malley said he was unavailable for comment Wednesday. In a statement published by the Vatican, the cardinal said he’d expressed to Collins his “most sincere thanks for the extraordinary contributions she has made as a founding member” of the group.
“We will certainly listen carefully to all that Marie wishes to share with us about her concerns and we will greatly miss her important contributions,” he said.
Thomas Groome, director of the Church in the 21st Century Center at Boston College, noted other efforts by Francis to make change have met with “obstinate resistance” within the Vatican, including efforts to reform church financial practices.
He said that, in resigning, Collins’s “intention is obviously trying to shock people into more resolute action.”
The frustration Collins felt, Duquesne’s Cafardi said, illustrates that the pope doesn’t have full control of the sprawling Vatican bureaucracy.
“The view the people have of the Catholic Church is that it’s some kind of monolith,” he said. “It’s more like hundreds of little kingdoms, and people are very jealous of protecting their turf.”
Although she did not mention it in her statements, Collins in recent days expressed dismay that the pope had quietly overruled Vatican decisions and extended mercy to a handful of abusive priests who had asked for clemency. The Associated Press reported Sunday about the pope’s intervention and said some of those given lighter punishment — a lifetime of prayer and penance instead of dismissal from the clerical state — had connections.
“While mercy is important, justice for all parties is equally important,” Collins told the AP in an e-mail. “If there is seen to be any weakness about proper penalties, then it might well send the wrong message to those who would abuse.”
Kurt Martens, a professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America, said Collins’s resignation announcement coming so soon after those reports, “doesn’t reflect well on Pope Francis.”
He said the whole episode cast doubt on whether the global church, and cultures in which the church exists around the world, have reached consensus on the gravity of child abuse. “I think the worst is still to come,” he said, referring to the handling of the crisis.
Collins said in her statement to the National Catholic Reporter that she was frustrated by the lack of resources and authority given to the panel.
She noted that the commission’s recommendation for a dedicated permanent tribunal to hold bishops accountable was never implemented because of concerns from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about the tribunal’s “unspecified ‘legal’ difficulties.” Bishops played a central role in the abuse crisis by shuffling around abusive priests and sheltering them from civil authorities.
Because of the objections to the permanent tribunal, Francis instead issued guidance clarifying the Vatican’s existing procedures for jettisoning bad bishops and ordered prelates to follow those rules. Collins said in her statement Wednesday it was “impossible to know” whether that was happening.
Krysten Winter-Green, a commission member from New Zealand who lives in the United States and who works as a forensic psychologist providing consultation to religious institutions, said many Vatican prelates support the commission’s work, but “there is a tremendous degree of frustration” involved with working within the Vatican bureaucracy.
She said she thought the problems had more to do with turf battles than ideological or theological disagreements, though she said it was difficult to be sure.
Winter-Green, who has worked with O’Malley in Massachusetts and the US Virgin Islands over the last 30 years, said she hoped the cardinal would improve that dynamic as a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
“If anybody can open up channels of communication, he can,” she said.
The other abuse survivor on the now 16-member commission, Peter Saunders, was forced to take a leave of absence a year ago after criticizing the slow pace of progress at the Vatican and the scope of the commission’s mandate.
With no survivors actively serving on the panel, Winter-Green said the commission needs to take a hard look at its composition.
Voice of the Faithful, a lay Catholic group formed in response to the clergy abuse scandal, called Collins “a stalwart force against the church’s intransigence in addressing clerical sex abuse.”
“The church,” the group said in a statement, “has lost a devoted servant in its effort to rid itself of scandal and protect its children in the future.”
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Lisa Wangsness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @wangsness.