LECIESTER, United Kingdom – A prominent survivor of clerical sexual abuse has called on the Church to clearly define abuse in canon law and implement a zero-tolerance policy at the Feb. 21-24 Vatican summit on the issue.
Irishwoman Marie Collins was appointed by Pope Francis to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in 2014, but resigned in 2017, citing Vatican resistance to reform.
On Jan. 29 she made a submission to the organizers of the February meeting, which will bring together the heads of the world’s bishops’ conferences. She published it on her website Jan. 31.
In her submission, she made seven recommendations for the bishops to consider:
- Agree on a clear definition of what constitutes sexual abuse of a minor.
- Agree on a clear definition of the term “zero tolerance.”
- Review church law on the abuse of vulnerable adults, separating it from the abuse of minors.
- Universal safeguarding measures across the Catholic Church need to be agreed to and put in place.
- The requirements set in place by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith for a local safeguarding policy to receive approval should also be circulated to the participants and published.
- It should be clearly stated to the participants at the meeting the process by which a negligent bishop or other church leader will be brought to justice within the institution.
- A commitment should also be announced to make any guilty verdicts in regard to members of church leadership public and this should include any such past findings.
In explaining her recommendations, Collins said she wanted the officials to “move forward efficient and effective means by which minors can be better protected in the Catholic Church globally without further delay.”
She said the “vagueness of the canon law in regard to abuse” can see church courts unable to come to a guilty verdict in cases “where most people would see clearly sexual abuse has occurred.”
Collins also said there is a vagueness surrounding the term “zero tolerance”: Pope Francis has promised to implement the policy, but she said church leaders often “argue about what level of abuse is acceptable before zero tolerance is applied while others ignore it.”
Although several commentators have called on the summit to also cover vulnerable adults, Collins is adamant the abuse of children is fundamentally different, and must be dealt with separately.
“The sexual exploitation of persons who are over 18 should not be confused with abuse of minors,” she said in her submission.
“Vulnerability may be due to lack of mental faculties as per the current canon law. However, it can more often be due to an imbalance of power between the victim and perpetrator, some adults can be vulnerable at certain times in their life while not permanently vulnerable,” she explained.
“A completely separate process for dealing with the issue of minors and that of vulnerable adults is necessary. There should be no confusion between the two forms of abuse. Methods to deal with cases involving vulnerable adults need to be developed independently of those currently in place to deal with the abuse of minors,” she said.
Finally, Collins emphasized the importance of accountability.
She called on Francis to make a clear statement at the February meeting outlining what process is to hold bishops accountable: “Who is investigating? Who are the judges? What are the penalties being imposed?”
“All church leaders’ worldwide need to be very clear on the sanctions which will be applied if they cover up for perpetrators of abuse or in any way fail to protect minors in their area. This procedure should also be published as the secrecy surrounding it increases the perception that there is no process in place,” she said.
Collins said the Vatican should make known which church leaders have been found guilty, and their crimes and punishment made public.
“It would be a deterrent to any current leaders, who might hold negative views on safeguarding,” she said.