We Are Church Keynote Talk by Marie Collins


This is a re-print of Marie Collins talk at the We Are Church event, Monday 14th January 2019. We have received permission to re-print it here  

We Are Church called for a meeting between myself and Pope Francis in advance of his visit here to Dublin last year.  As you will know I did meet him along with five other survivors and I will speak a little about that meeting this evening.  Particularly what I learned from it about the church, so many decades into the crisis around the sexual abuse of children by clergy.

I will also look at where are we now in Ireland, what should we expect from the upcoming meeting of principals of episcopal conference in Rome in February on the Protection of Minors and is there anything we in the laity should be doing to ensure our Church is making all the changes needed to ensure that children are safe within it.

Sadly I see a complacency in Ireland gaining ground.  An attitude that the crisis is behind us – everything is fine now we have good safeguarding in the Church – “we see more abuse in society anyway why concentrate on the Church”

While it is true better safeguarding has been put in place by church and state, the Church guidelines include auditing of internal processes which is positive.  However this only came about because of the outrage among the people and the pressure due to horrific revelations of abuse and its deliberate cover up by the institution.

It is the same mechanism which we have seen in other countries where survivors have come forward and where the scandals have been exposed.  America, Australia etc... We see the Church reacting with improved processes because they have had to be seen to be doing something.

The problem is that while in these countries there may be improvement there is still a long way to go and we need to realise this.  But more important is to realise that any improvement despite what has happened in these specific places it is not universal. The Church has not acted proactively only reactively.  The experience from those countries where the abuse crisis has been faced is not being used to bring universal policies into place for the countries where it has yet to occur.

In each country where survivors come forward for the first time and begin to speak out the Church reaction is a mirror image of what we were hearing here in Ireland thirty years ago. I spoke recently with someone from Poland where the crisis is just now breaking.  There the bishops are saying it is “enemies of the church” behind it, it is an aggressive” media with an anti-church agenda” all very familiar and an absolutely disgraceful attitude in 2019.

You can be sure there is abuse of minors in every country where the Church has a presence as it is in every society.    Yet the sleeping mandarins in leadership in our Church seem to feel if they turn a blind eye it will stay hidden and they will not have to deal with it.  While they look away children are being hurt.

Children everywhere must be safeguarded from abuse and there has to be the strongest possible penalties for the perpetrators and anyone in leadership who would protect them.  This is not happening.

Pope Francis, on his way home to Rome after his Irish visit, commented that I was fixed on an accountability tribunal and he had tried to explain to me that he was using other more appropriate means instead to hold guilty bishops accountable.  He said I did not understand and he would explain it to me when I was next in Rome. I have been in Rome since but not surprisingly this has not happened.

The history behind this comment is interesting.  At risk of reinforcing the criticism that I am “fixated” I will say a little about the accountability tribunal for those who may not be aware.  

In 2015 The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, of which I was a member, recommended to the Pope the setting up of a tribunal in the Vatican to judge bishops who were accused of negligence, cover up etc... In respect to abuse of minors.

On 10th June that year the Council of Cardinals (C9) announced this recommendation had been approved by the Pope and he had promised to provide all support be it financial or personnel necessary for it to be established.

Three months later the Commission learned that the tribunal was not going to happen.  

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the dicastery which was to have developed it had refused and later in March 2017 shortly after my resignation from the Commission its Prefect Cardinal Muller said they had decided it was not necessary.

At the meeting with the Pope last August I had one question to ask him and that was why had he allowed this to happen?  Why did he approve the tribunal, announce it then allow it to be dropped.

His answer to me was that it was not the way it should be done.  He told me that bishops could not all be held to the same standard.  Allowances had to be made for their cultural difference and their different understandings.  This meant he said that they needed to be judged in their own area not centrally in the Vatican.   

I challenged him on this saying the church should have a standard of safeguarding to which every leader must be held.  Children should be as well protected in the Church in Africa or India as in America or Ireland. Canon law is universal – Catholic Doctrine is universal – safeguarding should be universal.

The Pope said he was holding bishops accountable under the system in place and when he was convinced of their guilt he had removed them.  

As I had only about ten minutes for this conversation I could not pursue it any further but I now know from his later comment that the Pope was of the opinion that I had not understood what he was saying.

I did understand I just did not agree with his conclusions.  What I did not understand was what had brought him to change his mind after approving the central tribunal recommendation.  It does appear the Pope can change his mind on things depending on the advisors he is listening to at a particular time. We see this here as we saw it in Chile.

On his words in respect to local culture it is my view that if there are things acceptable in local culture that would not be acceptable in other areas of the world then it is up to the Church to raise the standard and educate not to lower their standards.  

While we must respect peoples’ culture we must also respect the rights of the child.  If the Church is having difficult which should take precedence they could take their guidance from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 3 “In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”

The Holy See has signed the UN declaration on the Rights of the Child - it is about time they recognised its provision universally and not see it as only referring to the tiny Vatican City. (Though even there as we know the Church have no safeguarding policy in place).

The Catholic Church is global and can be a force for good, raising the level of safety for all children by their example but they need to make a firm decision to bring this about.  

In 2012 the first Vatican sponsored gathering of episcopal representatives from around the globe to discuss the sexual abuse of children took place in Rome.  This symposium– Towards Healing and Renewal – took the form of presentations from experts on the issue, break out educational workshops, discussion in language groups.  It was intended to be a beginning of a global response to the abuse issue and some of the organisers were the same as those now organising the February meeting. Unfortunately seven years on from that initiative little results have been shown for it.  Will the same be the fate of this new initiative?

If this is to be avoided what do we need to see on the agenda.  In my view there are a number things which I would like to see happen at this meeting.

It is important that as a very first step that participants should agree on the definitions of certain terms commonly used around the issues. At the moment while the terms used are familiar they can have very different meaning to different people.

I have found when taking part in the training sessions with new bishops from around the world that they can be using the same phrases but meaning entirely different things.  It is important before anything else that this ends and all are on the same page.

1 Agree a clear definition of what constitutes sexual abuse of a minor and commit to abiding by it in all cases.

The Vatican has not clearly set out what actually constitutes sexual abuse of a minor in the view of the official Church.   All we have is a Canon Law which is extremely vague speaking of “delicts against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue”

Compare that to the definition in the local Irish Church Safeguarding Guidance:

“Sexual abuse occurs when others use and exploit children sexually for their own gratification or gain or the gratification of others.  Sexual abuse may involve physical contact, including assault by penetration (for example rape or oral sex) or non-penetrative acts such as masturbation, kissing, rubbing and touching outside the clothing.  It may include non-contact activities, such as involving children in the production of sexual abuse images, forcing children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways or grooming a child in preparation for abuse (including via e-technology).  Sexual abuse is not solely perpetrated by adult males. Women can commit acts of sexual abuse as can other children.”

At the moment the vagueness of the Canon law in regard to abuse often leads to canon law trials not being able to bring in a guilty verdict in cases where most people would see clearly abuse has occurred.  It also affects things like “credible accusations” etc... If there is no consistent agreement across the church as to what IS sexual abuse of a minor then how can we have any hope of consistent handling of the issue.

2   Agree on a clear definition of the term “zero tolerance” and commit to its     implementation in line with the Pope’s promise

The Pope has promised there will be zero tolerance across the Church for anyone who would perpetrate abuse on a minor.  However the term means different things to different people. Although the meaning of “zero” seems obvious to us. Those in the church who give it any attention argue about what level of abuse is acceptable before zero tolerance is applied.

When agreement is reach on the meaning of the term, participants representing their episcopal conferences should commit to implementing it in their countries

3. Canon law should be updated to reflect the full definition of what constitutes sexual abuse of a minor and also incorporate zero tolerance into its code.

4. Canon law on the abuse of vulnerable adults needs to be separated from the abuse of minors.  

The abuse of power leading to the sexual exploitation of young seminarians or any persons who are over 18 should not be confused with abuse of minors. The processes in dealing with the two issues should be completely separate.

5. Universal safeguarding measures and a transparent accountability policy for dealing justly with reports of abuse should be agreed

This would bring a consistency to the way sexual abuse of minors is dealt with no matter where in the world instead of the current ad hoc situation.  Or where action is dependent on the particular bishop and his attitude or willingness to act.

Participants should commit in writing at this meeting to implementing these measures in their area of episcopal authority.  Any episcopal conference leader who refuses to comply should be named and his explanation made public.

The Pope promised during his plane press conference after his Irish visit to explain to me the working of the accountability procedure for bishops which he was implementing. It is not me who should be given this explanation it is everyone.

6. The Pope should make a clear statement at this meeting outlining what is the accountability process being used by the Church to hold bishops accountable if accused of negligence, protection of abusers or cover up.  Who is investigating? Who are the judges? What are the penalties?

Pope Frances also told me he there had been guilty verdicts against bishops and he had removed the offenders.

7.  He needs at this meeting to name those who have a guilty finding against them, what was the offence and what was their penalty.  He also needs to commit to making these guilty verdicts public in the future.

If what I have mentioned were to actually happen at this meeting and all the presidents of the episcopal conferences agreed and committed themselves to implementation of true zero tolerance and universal safeguarding policy it would be a step forward indeed.

My fear is that what will hear is that there has been a great deal of prayer, reflection, and “fruitful discussion”.  We will be assured that things are moving forward and there will be promises for the future. But we will see little in the way of on paper concrete committed action plans.

Should we the laity here in Ireland be doing anything?  What can we do?

Just because things have moved to a better place here, and that is not saying things could not be improved, does not mean we can rest on our laurels.  We must look to what is happening outside our little island.

The Church has shown it cannot be proactive.  It moves only when it must in reaction to revelations, reports and anger among the laity.   Why is it so dysfunctional?

While I have been speaking specifically about abuse in all other areas the systems in the Church are equally dysfunctional.  Some of the reason for this lies in the way the Vatican actually goes about its work. Clericalism is embedded in its fabric. It is inefficient, full of cumbersome bureaucracy, jealousies between departments which leads to lack of cooperation, those in leadership often chosen because of their titles or contacts rather than their skills or expertise.  


The common practice, we have seen cases reported recently, of promoting people within the Church who have shown themselves to be incompetent in order to move them on has very predictable consequence.  It is done in the case of those holding already high office to prevent the “humiliation” of being demoted. Bella Figura is all important in that world – the saving of face. Understanding how things work at this level is important if we want to change it.

I do not believe change will happen if we wait for it to come from inside. The laity have to keep speaking out strongly for the changes and not be diverted – the obvious need for the involvement of the laity including women  at every level must happen if the church is to be brought into the 21st century with its people ………… persistence and patience is what is needed there are no quick fixes but no change will come unless we work for it the only alternative is to walk away and that is not the answer.

Marie Collins 14th January 2019