HARTFORD, Conn. — The Vatican’s special commission on clergy sexual abuse has given Pope Francis a proposal on how to punish bishops who failed to protect minors from sexual abuse by clergy under their oversight.
Marie Collins, a member of the panel — formally known as the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors — and herself a survivor of clergy sexual abuse, said she couldn’t reveal details of the proposal, but that personally, she believes some bishops must be removed from office. Among those she cited was Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, convicted in 2012 of failing to report suspected child abuse to civil authorities.
“I cannot understand how Bishop Finn is still in position, when anyone else with a conviction that he has could not run a Sunday school in a parish. He wouldn’t pass a background check,” she said in an interview with Crux. “I don’t know how anybody like that could be left in charge of a diocese.”
Collins said her working group has discussed Finn’s case, as well as that of the newly installed Bishop Juan de la Cruz Barros Madrid of Osorno, Chile, who is tied to one of that country’s most notorious abusers.
“I would say that anybody being appointed a bishop should first, as part of his investigation for his appointment, it should be ascertained that he has a good understanding of child protection before he’s put in place,” she said.
She said she didn’t know when Francis would act on the commission’s proposal. “It’s gone to the Holy Father and it’s up to him when he makes a decision,” she said. “Obviously the commission can’t put any deadlines on the Holy Father, it’s up to him when he decides. But I’d like to see it happen sooner rather than later.”
Meanwhile, Collins criticized the Vatican for failing to adequately fund the panel — a failure she says could jeopardize the commission’s work.
She said that although the group is making progress — such as including a section on abuse prevention in a course for all new bishops — the current model of temporary funding was untenable.
“I personally find that inexplicable because I think that with the Church saying this issue is of the highest priority, this commission should have been properly funded from the beginning,” she said.
The commission has even been told to consider raising their own funds to complete the work.
“If the Church is saying that this is its highest priority, then they must be able to fund it and fund it properly,” she said. “If you’re not properly funded, if you’re not properly resourced, then you can’t do the work that you need to do.”
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, president of the commission, was unavailable to respond to Collins’ comments.
Pope Francis created the task force in December 2013 to study how the Church could better protect children and hold bishops accountable. The fact that few bishops have been punished by the Church or civil authorities for their roles in allegedly covering up abuse has been a sore spot for many Catholics in the United States and around the world.
Collins has stated in the past that she would quit the commission if she felt their work wasn’t being taken seriously or was hindered by opposition forces in Rome, but Saturday she nuanced that remark a bit.
“No, I’m not going to walk away,” she said. “I will try to contribute as much as I can to the commission.”
But, she said, “If the time comes that I feel we’re not achieving anything, or there isn’t sincerity behind it, then I wouldn’t continue. But I’m not threatening to walk out.”
One of the hurdles the commission faces, she said, is convincing bishops from Africa and Asia that child sexual abuse is a problem for dioceses there, even if victims haven’t come forward in large numbers like in the United States and Europe.
“It’s very difficult then to get proper child protection measures put in place there, because if you think something’s not ever going to happen, you’re not going to put protections in place,” she said.
“Just because victims have not come forward does not mean they’re not there. If they feel that they are not going to be believed, if there’s an attitude that this doesn’t happen, then coming forward as a victim is very, very, very difficult,” she said, citing similarities in Ireland just two decades ago.
Collins’ remarks came during a visit to the United States Saturday to speak to the national gathering of the Voice of the Faithful, a lay reform group launched in response to the clergy sexual abuse crisis that rocked the US Church in the early 2000s.
During her talk, she recounted her own abuse at the hands of an Irish priest in the 1960s, and the aggressive reaction from the Archdiocese of Dublin when she tried to report it decades later.
Collins recoils when people accuse her of colluding with Church leaders on a PR campaign aimed at restoring the Church’s image rather than making substantive changes. She said that although she has agreed to help the Vatican, she still is encountering challenges.
“I can see dysfunction, and leadership looking at their own position and power,” she told the group. “I’m working on this commission because I want to see children protected in the future, not because I think the Church and its leaders are doing everything right.”
After her talk, she told Crux that she has faith in O’Malley, the commission’s leader, whom she described as “determined.”
She said the members of the commission have direct access to O’Malley, one of the pope’s nine cardinal advisers, which is how she and another commission member were able to schedule a last-minute meeting with him in Rome last week.
At times, Collins seems overwhelmed by the pressure that many Catholics place on the commission and her personally.
During the conference, several individuals asked why progress wasn’t being made faster, why the commission wasn’t more diverse, and why the Church wasn’t doing more.
“I wish the commission was an answer to everything, and I hope it is, but we have no guarantee it will be,” she said. “But I also have a healthy sense of reality. I do have a realistic view that we’ve had many promises in the past, and we’ve had many great words in the past, and nothing has happened.”
But she does see positive signs.
She said all the members of the commission — both lay and ordained — are committed to finding ways to make their changes stick.
Back in her native Ireland, she’s encouraged by the Archdiocese of Dublin and its archbishop, Diarmuid Martin, who she said could provide a blueprint for other dioceses in how it deals with accusations of sexual abuse and in providing support for victims.
And though she worries about internal resistance and his advanced age, she has great hope that Pope Francis supports change. Which is good, she said, because it’s ultimately up to him.
If the commission’s recommendations are “approved by the pope,” she said, “it will make a dramatic difference. It will show people that real change can happen.”