Abuse survivor calls for more accountability after Pope Francis promises "zero tolerance"

Abuse survivor calls for more accountability after Pope Francis promises “zero tolerance”

Abuse survivor calls for more accountability after Pope Francis promises “zero tolerance”

Marie Collins of Ireland, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse, is pictured in a 2014 photo. Collins was one of the founding members and the last remaining abuse survivor on the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. She left her position over what she described as resistance in Vatican offices against implementing recommendations for protecting people from abuse. (Credit: Carol Glatz/CNS.)

“The conscience of the Church arrived a little late” on sexual abuse, Pope Francis said during an audience at the Vatican, adding that sexual abuse is a "sickness" and that there will be no pardon for abusers who are found guilty. Abuse survivor Marie Collins praised the pope's words, but stated that the 'Zero Tolerance' policy is "toothless" without accountability.

ROME – Abuse survivor Marie Collins, former member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors until her resignation in March 2017, told Crux that while she believes that “zero tolerance” is the only viable option for perpetrators of the sexual abuse of children, more should be done on the side of accountability not only for abusers, but also for those religious leaders and bishops who were negligent.

Her remarks were in reaction to Pope Francis’s speech to the commission members and their families on September 21.

In a strong statement, Francis stressed the importance of ‘zero tolerance’ on sexual abuse, admitted that the Church was late in answering the abuse crisis, and promised never to offer mercy to someone found guilty of sexually abusing minors again.

“Zero tolerance is the way to go, but it’s toothless if there isn’t a sanction for anyone who doesn’t operate it,” Collins said.

In one of the off the cuff remarks that characterized the audience, the pope admitted that “the conscience of the Church arrived a little late,” adding that, “when conscience arrives late, the instruments to solve the problem arrive late.”

The pope continued to say that perhaps “the ancient practice of moving people around, to not stand up to the problem, numbed consciences a little bit.”

Francis stated that, “whoever is condemned of sexual abuse against minors can address the pope to receive a pardon,” but added that, he has “never signed one of these and never will I sign one. I hope this is clear.”

Later during the speech, the pope said that early on in his pontificate a priest from Crema asked for the pope’s mercy for a crime of sexual abuse. Francis said that he allowed it only to find him fall into the same pattern after two years. “I learned,” the pope said, and “I never did it again.”

“For this reason, I reiterate once again that the Church, at all levels, will respond with the application of the strongest measures to all those who have betrayed their call and have abused the children of God,” the pope continued. “The Church irrevocably and to all levels seeks to apply the principle of ‘zero tolerance’ against child sexual abuse.”

Collins said strong words are not enough.

“My problem with zero tolerance or any other policy that must be followed is: What do you do when it’s not being followed?” Collins asked. “And that is where accountability comes in, and that’s the piece that’s missing in my view. All the policies in the world are worthless unless there is some consequence for ignoring them.”

Collins pointed to the Tribunal instituted by the Commission, aimed at judging cases of sexual abuse within the Church, as well as Pope Francis’s motu propriu ‘Like a Loving Mother,’ which set up guidelines for repercussions for abuse. “Is that being implemented?” Collins asked. “Have religious leaders of bishops actually been sanctioned under any of these things that have been put in place?”

Collins argued that if these instruments were implemented it should be made public, because it would not only act as a deterrent for others but also assure people that the Church is committed in the fight against sex abuse.

The pope began the audience at the Apostolic Palace by expressing “the deep sorrow” he feels for the situation of abused children, and that the Church feels “ashamed for the abuses committed by sacred ministers, who should be the most trustworthy.”

In his speech, the pope used strong words, calling abuse a “horrible sin” and diametrically opposed to Church teaching, but his off the cuff remarks were much blunter.

“I have decided to balance the situation a little and I say that even one incident of the abuse of a minor, if proved, is sufficient to not receive any appeals. If there is proof it’s definitive,” Francis said. “Why? Simply because the person who does this, man or woman, is sick. It’s a sickness. Today he repents, he goes on, we forgive him, but after two years he falls again. We must get it into our heads that it’s a sickness.”

The pope also stressed the importance of listening to the stories of victims and survivors, which “continue to feed their personal commitment to do everything possible to combat this evil and eliminate this ruin among us.”

Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who heads the commission, also stated that the Church’s care for victims and survivors of abuse is “a primary consideration” for the Commission, which “has benefitted greatly from all that survivors have offered.”

Collins stated that “sincerity and transparency” must underline all efforts made by the Church to involve victims and survivors into the discussion. “Survivors, I think, are very willing to speak and to help. But if they are not being heard and they are just speaking into thin air it’s insulting to the survivor and it’s useless to the Church,” she said.

An Irish laywoman, Collins stepped down as member of the commission because, according to her, the group’s work is being “hindered and blocked by members of the Curia.”

“Unfortunately, we have heard a lot said about listening to survivors but nothing much done in that respect. I was on the commission for three years and I never got to do anything but shake hands with the pope, I would have liked to have had the opportunity to sit down with him and speak with him for even a short amount of time,” Collins told Crux.

Francis said at the audience that he had spoken to other survivors who vividly painted for him the pain and lasting consequences that sexual abuse has on children and those around them.

“I think survivors are sometimes seen as difficult, because we are challenging and we want to see things happen,” Collins said, adding that perhaps that was true during her time at the commission. “The problem is that the Church needs to be challenged. That’s the only way we get change!”

In his speech inaugurating the plenary session of the commission, Francis stressed that the Church must be a place of “piety and compassion, especially for those who have suffered,” and strive to be a “field hospital that accompanies in our spiritual itinerary.”

“I am fully confident that the Commission will remain a place where we can listen with interest to the voices of the victims and the survivors,” the pope continued. “Because we have much to learn from them and from their personal stories of courage and perseverance.”

In his speech, the pope also lauded the presentation made by O’Malley and Collins on Sep. 8 to the new bishops’ training course in Rome to instruct them on the issues concerning sexual abuse.

“It’s good to be able to reach bishops from different continents. They have different levels of knowledge and understanding of abuse and child protection so it’s important to speak on that occasion,” Collins said. “In some countries where the issue has not yet come to the fore there can be a feeling that there is no necessity of doing anything much in the way of child prevention of abuse. In countries like America, Australia, Ireland where it has already been a great issue, there is great awareness and therefore there are good protection policies in place. One thing I always wanted to see when I was in the commission was strong safeguarding policies consistent around the globe.”

Even if the training session only lasts about one hour, Collins said that as a survivor she is “very happy to see the bishops get even this amount of training, which is definitely a step forward. It’s very happy to see the pope actually mention it and looking at it as so valuable.”

Collins offers her constructive criticism even on this issue, saying that one of the only negative aspects in the bishops’ training is that some parts of the world such as Africa are not included in the program.

In his speech, the pope addressed the issue, encouraging the commission to collaborate with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples in order to ensure that “these practices are inculturated in the different churches around the world.”

Francis added that the high composition of canon lawyers in the internal commission of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, presided over by Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, could be improved by adding more diocesan bishops with on the ground experience, since “there is the tendency of lawyers to lower the punishment.”

The commission today will be concluding its initial three-year mandate and O’Malley said in his introduction that it is his intention to continue to offer recommendations to further the work of the commission and to renew its membership from churches all over the world.

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