In terms of the optics of the situation, there’s just no way in which the departure of Marie Collins, the only abuse survivor who was also an active member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, looks good for Pope Francis.
Citing frustrations with resistance to the commission’s work from within the Roman Curia, Collins announced today that she’s stepping down, though she’ll continue to work with the group in delivering anti-abuse training to clergy. Her exit comes at a time when Francis’s standing with survivors was already taking hits, in part because of revelations that he’s lightened the punishments imposed on several abuser priests in what the pontiff sees as a spirit of mercy, but what critics regard as a breakdown in accountability.
Certainly, the bureaucratic inertia and power games described by Collins raise legitimate questions about how serious the Vatican may be in terms of its commitment to reform. However, if one looks at the situation dispassionately, there’s also a case to be made that Collins’s resignation, along with the inactive status of the only other survivor on the commission, Peter Saunders of the UK, was both inevitable and arguably for the best.
When Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston and his team at the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors recommended that the pope name Collins and Saunders as members, the intentions were obviously noble. O’Malley understands from extensive personal experience that if you want to understand the spiritual and emotional devastation caused by clerical sexual abuse, there simply is no substitute for hearing the voices of survivors.
They also know that any credible clean-up effort has to be informed by the insights and perspectives of survivors, or it won’t fly. That’s not just a once-and-for-all fact of life but an ongoing one, since survivors need to be at the table whenever new problems and challenges arise, and to help monitor the implementation of whatever plans have been hatched.
In retrospect, however, making individuals such as Collins and Saunders full members of the commission turned out to place them in a politically untenable spot that was neither fair to them nor, ultimately, helpful to the commission.
Both Collins and Saunders were well-known as survivors of clerical abuse long before their nomination to the commission, with a reputation for outspokenness and leadership in the fight against abuse. That was a large part of the reason they were selected, on the theory that their credibility in the survivors’ community would translate to the papal commission.
The reality, however, is that being perceived as part of the pope’s official team and the Vatican’s power structure often left them trapped between their loyalty to the commission and their loyalties to their fellow survivors. Anytime a controversy arose, whether about the commission’s work or some other decision the pope or the Vatican had made with regard to sexual abuse, it was dicey for them to figure out how much they could say publicly, how hard they could push back, because they also felt obligated to try not to handicap or embarrass the group.
When Francis named a bishop in Chile in 2015 with a track record of defending that country’s most notorious abuser-priest, for instance, the decision troubled many abuse survivors and their advocates around the world. It left both Collins and Saunders in an especially difficult spot, because their fellow survivors looked to them to speak up, to lead the protests, and yet their institutional role on the commission made doing so politically complicated.
The reality likely is that survivors of clerical abuse will never be fully satisfied with the Church’s response, and that’s as it should be. Survivors, especially those with the courage to go public, need to be free to speak out and to help keep the Church honest, cajoling it to remain eternally vigilant – if necessary, even shaming it into action.
That’s an essential role, but awfully difficult to play when, at the same time, one is also part of the “system.”
Moreover, it’s not as if making survivors full members of the commission is the only way to ensure that their voices are heard. Collins herself is now an illustration of the point, no longer sitting on the group but still accepting an invitation from O’Malley to continue to be part of their training efforts, including for newly appointed bishops from around the world.
Survivors can be brought in routinely as consultants and advisers, they can be asked to take part in the commission’s meetings, they can participate in various projects and initiatives, and so on, all without being forced to carry the political weight for whatever decisions are reached – and remaining free to speak up if they believe those decisions are flawed.
The commission can also organize listening sessions with abuse survivors around the world, on the premise that the experience of a survivor in, say, Western Europe, is likely very different from that of someone in sub-Saharan Africa or the Indian subcontinent.
The bottom line is that the exit of Marie Collins isn’t necessarily the end of the road in terms of abuse survivors being represented on the pope’s commission. It could actually mean a transition to a more honest, freer, and less personally conflicted way of doing it.