Experts from a wide range of fields will be part of the Holy See’s newly launched Commission for the Protection of Minors, including a victim of abuse by a priest.
The names of the first eight members of the Commission were announced Saturday. Members of the group are Marie Collins, an Irish abuse survivor; Boston Archbishop and “G8” member Cardinal Sean O’Malley; French psychologist Catherine Bonnet; British Professor Sheila Hollins, a specialist in mental health; Italian jurist Claudio Papale; Poland’s former prime minister and ambassador to the Holy See, Hanna Suchocka; Fr. Humberto Miguel Yanez, SJ, moral theologian and former pupil and collaborator of Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Argentina; and Fr. Hans Zollner, SJ, vice-rector of the Pontifical Gregorian University and Chair of the Centre for Child Protection at the University’s Institute of Psychology.Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi explained in a statement that the task of this “initial group” will include: “participating in the deliberations concerning the Commission’s final structure; describing the scope of its responsibilities; and developing the names of additional candidates, especially from other continents and countries, who can offer service to the Commission.”
Collins, an advocate for victims of sexual abuse, was herself abused by a hospital chaplain when she was a teenager. In an interview with ZENIT, she explained that her role within the Commission will be to speak “as a survivor of the issues that are of vital importance to those who are at the very centre of this issue, the abused.”
Decades after her abuse, Collins reported the hospital chaplain’s conduct to her local parish priest, and later to her archbishop, only to have her claims dismissed by both. Despite the suffering she has experienced, owing largely to her treatment by Church authorities as well as to the abuse she suffered, she has remained a Catholic, admitting that she has found it difficult at times to practice fully. “I have tried in my mind to separate the institutional Church with its hierarchical structures from the message of the faith,” she said, adding: “My belief in God has never waivered.”
Collins is the founder of the Marie Collins Foundation, an initiative which provides support to children who have been sexually abused or exploited via online resources. In 2012, she was invited to speak at a Symposium on the sexual abuse of minors, held at the Pontifical Gregorian University, during which she shared her testimony with bishops from around the world.
While Collins sees the setting up of the Commission by Pope Francis as “a hopeful sign of him giving the issue serious attention,” she was “disappointed” by the Holy Father’s remarks on March 5 in which he said the Church has been unjustly criticized on the issue of sexual abuse in comparison with other institutions. In making this remark, she said, it appears that the Pope does not recognize that “the criticism and anger directed at the Church is not because it had abusers in its ranks”: rather, it was because the abusers were protected by their superiors, which in turn, in many cases, “facilitated further abuse.”
“There must also be a change in attitude towards survivors,” Collins stressed. “The often abusive legal process at the moment leaves no room for care of those who are hurt and in fact causes further damage. There is no point in aspirational statements coming from the Commission, real structural change needs to be put in place.”
Collins said that she hopes this new Commission will “bring in changes in the handling of child abuse, which would see true accountability introduced to ensure that all child protection policies are backed up by severe consequences for anyone, no matter their seniority within the Church, who would ignore them.”
Collins added that she has received mixed responses from other abuse survivors and survivor groups. While she has received support from some, she said, “there have of course been negative responses as well”: namely, those “who see this Commission as a sham and my inclusion as part of a public relations stunt.” She added, “I can well understand their distrust and anger.”
“It is up to the Commission to prove by its actions that it is a sincere move forwards by the Church,” she said.
Aims of Commission
Explaining that the “Church has a critical role to play” in the area of child protection, Fr. Lombardi wrote in his statement Saturday, “the Commission will take a multi-pronged approach to promoting youth protection, including: education regarding the exploitation of children; discipline of offenders; civil and canonical duties and responsibilities; and the development of best practices as they have emerged in society at large.”
While the precise activities of the Commission for the Protection of Minors are still being developed, it will have no juridical or legislative authority. Rather, its primary function will be to advise the Holy See from a multidisciplinary perspective.
One of the members of the Commission is Fr. Hans Zollner, SJ, who is head of the Institute of Psychology at the Gregorian University in Rome, and director of the Centre for the Protection of Minors.
“This commission will not take away legal responsibilities from other Dicasteries,” he explained. “This will not be a juridical commission or a legislative commission. This will be a sort of board that can assist the Holy See and local churches and religious communities… to better find out what has to be done, and where the points of negligence and of denial are, and where we have to do more.”
As an addition to the various other mechanisms already in place within the Vatican to promote the protection of minors, Fr. Zollner said that the establishment of this Commission “is Pope Francis’ clear sign that he’s going forward in a proactive attitude and stance. It’s not only about the past: it’s mostly about the future.”
“You have to have a long-standing approach,” Fr. Zollner added. “You have to have patience and determination to go forward, even if the public opinion, and the public interest, has diminished.”