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
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
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
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
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
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
It could actually mean a transition to a more
honest, freer, and less personally conflicted way of doing it.