By Joshua J. McElwee  Mar. 1, 2017

(Joshua J. McElwee is a US National Catholic Reporter. Email:

(Paraphrased by Brian Mark Hennessy)

The only active member of Pope Francis’ new commission on clergy sexual abuse who is an abuse survivor has resigned from the group due to frustration with Vatican officials’ reluctance to cooperate with its work to protect children. Marie Collins, an Irishwoman who has served on the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors since March 2014, announced her resignation in a press statement Wednesday. In a separate exclusive statement for the National Catholic Reporter, explaining her choice, Collins says that she decided to leave the commission after losing hope that Vatican officials would cooperate with its work following a failure to implement a series of recommendations.

Collins says her decision to resign was immediately precipitated by one Vatican office’s refusal to comply with a request from the commission, approved by Pope Francis, that all letters sent to the Vatican by abuse survivors should receive a response. “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 writes in the statement. “When I accepted my appointment to the Commission in 2014, I said publicly that if I found what was happening behind closed doors was in conflict with what was being said to the public, I would not remain,” she states. “This point has come. I feel I have no choice but to resign if I am to retain my integrity.”

In her March 1st statement for the National Catholic Reporter, Collins also expressed frustration that a sample template of guidelines for safeguarding children developed by the commission has not yet been published. She says that a Vatican office had created its own sample template and refused to join efforts with the Commission to reach an agreed text. Collins also mentions that the Commission’s request, approved by the Pope, that the Vatican create a new Tribunal to judge bishops who act inappropriately in sexual abuse cases was not acted upon. While that Tribunal was announced by O’Malley in June 2015, it was never created. In place of the proposed Tribunal, Francis signed a new universal law for the Church in June 2016 specifying that a bishop’s negligence in response to clergy sexual abuse could lead to his removal from office. The law, given the name “Come una madre amorevole” – (“As a loving Mother”), also empowers four separate Vatican Curia offices to investigate such bishops and initiate processes of their removal.

Collins is the third of Francis’ 17 original appointees to the commission to leave its work. The only other abuse survivor on the commission, Englishman Peter Saunders, was placed on leave from the group in February 2016, because of friction between Saunders and other members of the commission. Claudio Papale, an official at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, resigned from the Commission in May 2016. His resignation was not initially made public. Upon inquiry from NCR at the time, a Commission spokesperson said Papale had resigned for personal reasons.

In a statement on Wednesday, the Commission said it had “deep appreciation” for Collins’ work. In her own press statement Collins said she would continue to work with the group in helping with training projects for priests and bishops. Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the head of the Commission, said in a statement that he had expressed to Collins “our most sincere thanks for the extraordinary contributions she has made as a founding member. With the members of the Commission I am deeply grateful for Marie’s willingness to continue to work with us in the education of church leaders, including the upcoming programs for new bishops and for the dicasteries of the Holy See,” said O’Malley. “Our prayers will remain with Marie and with all victims and survivors of sexual abuse.”

Dominican Fr. Thomas Doyle, an expert on the church’s response to clergy sexual abuse, said in an interview that he thought Collins’ resignation would cause the Commission to lose trustworthiness among survivors and advocates who have pushed for decades for the Church to better protect vulnerable people. “Its credibility is going to take a nose-dive,” said Doyle. “If they don’t have a survivor on that Commission, it’s akin to the Board of Directors of the American Medical Association being made up of bureaucrats and no doctors. Here you have an issue that really has to have input from survivors,” he said. “Quite frankly, the clerical world does not understand what this is all about.” Doyle continued that he thinks the Commission needs to be given the power to rewrite its mandate in order to be more effective. “They are a consultative Commission,” he said. “They have no power. There has to be some mechanism where they can get by the Curia an get things done”.

Krysten Winter-Green, a member of the abuse Commission, said in an interview that she finds it difficult to conceptualise a Commission of this nature without the benefit of the voice of survivors or victims. “I think it will take some time to really look at the composition of this Commission and forge a path ahead,” said Winter-Green, who is a native New Zealander, living in the U.S. and providing consulting services for religious congregations. She echoed Collins’ frustration with the reluctance of Vatican offices to work with the abuse Commission. “I think there’s been a lack of cooperation, I would say, by some Congregations in the Curia,” she said. “I really do not know where it comes from, but I do know that it does a grave disservice to survivors and victims and it doesn’t really promote the healing and care that the Commission is about. If this commission is going to really accomplish what His Holiness wants it to accomplish, then I think we need to take a very, very serious look at where we are presently and where we see this Commission going in the future,” said Winter-Green. Asked what she might say to an abuse survivor who thinks it is not appropriate for a Vatican commission on abuse to not have a member who is a survivor, Winter-Green responded: “I would have to agree. I would strongly encourage survivor participation. In fact, I would go so far as to say I would insist on survivor participation.”




The resignation of former Victims of sexual abuse from the Pontifical Commission, discussed in the above article by Joshua J. McElwee, are discouraging. From time to time it is difficult to establish clearly what direction the Catholic Church, under the leadership of Pope Francis, is heading. The Vatican compass swings wildly almost day to day in different directions – and we wonder where and when it will settle once again on its course – and what that ‘sometimes elusive’ course might be. We wonder too, who is to blame for the turgid progress of the cause of Victims of abuse. Is Pope Francis too weak? Is this or that Cardinal trying to continually undermine him? Why is there no clear and absolute direction?

It is of further note that, surprisingly to the understanding of most lay-persons, the nature of the governance of the Catholic Church and the responsibilities of the Pope, individual Bishops and Religious Leaders of the Traditional Orders is most unlike that of Civil Governments and Business Institutions with which the majority are familiar. In the latter, you have a top to bottom hierarchical structure by which laws and policies are handed down with legally binding, crystal clear, word for word and unchanged clarity. The Catholic Church is not constituted like that – and the Pope, even when regaled with the triple crown and the Keys of Saint Peter, is far removed from a status anything like that of a “constitutional monarch”.

By way of explanation and example, on the 20 July 2011, the Irish Dáil passed a motion on the “Cloyne Diocese Child Abuse Report” which, among other things, deplored “the Vatican’s intervention which contributed to the undermining of the child protection framework and guidelines of the Irish State and the Irish Conference of Bishops”. What had the Vatican done to cause such outlandish offence we may ask? Simply, the Vatican had declared that one Irish Bishop, who had decided not to follow either the Dail’s processes and nor those of the Conference of Bishops, was within his rights to decline to do so.

The response of the Vatican to the charge by the Dail was that it should be “borne in mind that the social organization of the Catholic Church throughout the world, is a communion of many particular Churches – for example, Dioceses and their equivalents, such as Territorial Prelatures, Apostolic Vicariates and, Military Ordinariates – (to which we can add Religious Orders). The Church, it was stated, is not like that of a modern State with a central government – nor is it comparable to that of a federal State. In the Church, the individual Bishops are neither representatives nor delegates of the Roman Pontiff, but of Christ Himself, albeit, as Catholic Bishops, they are to act in communion with the Bishop of Rome and the other Bishops throughout the world. This, the Vatican stated, is the principle of “episcopal collegiality”, as described by the Second Vatican Council. Hence, while the diocesan Bishop is to act in conformity with universal canonical legislation, it is the Bishop himself who is primarily responsible for penal discipline within his own Diocese and jurisdiction. In the Catholic Church, this particular relationship among the various Dioceses within the one Church is expressed by the term “ecclesial communion” and it has been particularly evident since the Second Vatican Council, which placed special emphasis on the proper responsibility of each Bishop”.

The response continued, “Without having to refer either to the Holy See or to the Episcopal Conference, and provided the Bishop respects the requirements of the universal law of the Church and the just laws of the State, each individual Bishop has the right and the obligation to take whatever initiative he deems necessary in order to promote charity and justice in his Diocese. In this context, with due respect for the prerogatives and responsibilities of individual Bishops, the Holy See has the sole (and, therefore, limited) responsibility of ensuring the unity of faith, sacraments and governance in the Church, and the processes of maintaining and strengthening of the ecclesial communion. Only when this unity and ecclesial communion is compromised, is the Roman Pontiff enabled to act directly, or through the offices of the Roman Curia, to seek to rectify matters”’.

In other words, what was stated to the Irish Dail is that, within the unusual context of the Catholic Church, the local Bishop reigns supreme – for the most part. The Pope is, theoretically, just another Bishop – like any other Bishop – and his diocese is Rome. Despite his election as Pontiff of the Catholic Church, he is not an absolute ruler, nor even a benevolent despot, but his remit is that of the Shepherd of his Flock and a caring Teacher- who sometimes has to resort to carrying a light in the darkness to guide – and who, extraordinarily, at other times, needs to persuade and gently goad his helpers in the right direction. This unusual “constitution” of the Church probably explains the Pope’s inability (and sometimes his apparent reluctance or even his failure) to make or demand the rapid changes for which the outside world has an expectation. In the context of the Church today which, demonstrably, has polarised extremes of view (eg: the Cardinal Burkes to the right and, perhaps, for the sake of the argument, the Cardinal O’Malleys to the left) Pope Francis himself, as Bishop of Rome, both cannot and should not himself be adjudicating, as a matter of routine, in another Bishop’s local diocesan matters. As the Pope’s title, “Primus inter Pares” proclaims, amongst both Patriarchs and his fellow Bishops, he is merely the “First amongst Equals”. Thus, behold the often-confused signals and the snail-like speed of change that, most surprisingly even to avid “Vatican Watchers”, can be anything other than “influenced” by any Pope in the Catholic Church – should he even chose to intervene. Call it a “dog’s dinner” if you wish, but it is not about to change.

Having said that, despite all the setbacks such as the resignation of Marie Collins that we perceive at a distance, there is one thing that Pope Francis can do – and has been doing with steadfast determination – and that is to sow the seeds of change that will bear fruit in the long term – perhaps the very long term. The evidence for this are the continual and sometimes dramatic changes Francis has made in the senior appointments to the Curia, his shrewdness in the establishment of a very select group of Cardinal advisors and his wisdom in the appointments of new and progressive bishops that he foresees will ensure that his own successor will continue on the same path of his current work of reform – slow as that process appears to be. At the Vatican it is not so much personal success in the short term, but the success of the “long game” that pre-occupies every Pope. That is the direction – the true North – in which the Vatican Compass needs always to be fixed. This scenario means also, of course, that some hopeful Hierarchs will be overlooked or sidelined in the process. Yes – clerics can be ambitious too – and that needs to be managed also. Accordingly, some have been put out to pasture by Pope Francis already – with nothing much more to do than ruminate on what might have been – if only.

It is of interest, in this overall context, that Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, was recently appointed by Pope Francis to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Boston’s Cardinal O’Malley, a Franciscan, already sits on the council of cardinal advisers who assist Pope Francis in the reform of the Roman Curia. This new appointment of O’Malley to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the dicastery of the Curia that sits in pole position at the Vatican, is not “instead of”, but “in addition to” leading the Commission for the Protection of Minors. Undoubtedly, this new, additional responsibility of Cardinal O’Malley’s will be seen by some as a sign of the adamant resolve of the Pope in the fight against clerical sexual abuse and the deadly prevalent disease of clericalism. It most probably is. Unbeknown to the casual observer, therefore, Pope Francis may have already reset the Vatican Compass on the course of a new and steadfast future. He has publicly warned the Curia recently not to work against his will by rearguard actions and threatened to make radical changes in the staffing of Curial posts in the case of those who obstruct him. Possibly, Francis sees O’Malley as the “spearhead” of this reformation of the CDF. O’Malley may also be the stuff that an ageing Pope may wish to see in pole position, either as King Maker or as Papal Candidate, when a Conclave is summoned to replace himself as Pope. However, only in the future will the laboriously slow revolutions of the Vatican wheels reveal to us the destination, devoid of all tangential deviation, to which the genial, but determined, Pope Francis has long since set a course.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s