Catholic activist Sister Simone Campbell suggested senior clergy at the Vatican are more preoccupied with power than confronting issues that affect the faithful, like clerical sexual abuse.
The U.S. nun, leader of the “Nuns on the Bus” campaign that toured America during recent election cycles, spoke frankly in an interview ahead of a conference being held at the Vatican on Wednesday to celebrate women’s contributions to peace.
“The institution and the structure is frightened of change,” Campbell told Religion News Service. “These men worry more about the form and the institution than about real people.”
Referring to Marie Collins, who last week resigned from the panel appointed by Pope Francis to look into allegations of past Vatican obstruction of child sex abuse investigations, Campbell said: “Blocked by men. Isn’t this the real problem within the church?”
“The effort to keep the church from stopping this sort of thing is shocking,” she added. “It is about male power and male image, not people’s stories. The real trouble is they have defined their power as spiritual leadership and they don’t have a clue about spiritual life.”
Campbell said she was shocked, and also moved, to have been included on the guest list for the Vatican conference.
She was among the American nuns targeted in the controversial investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious that was authorized in 2012 under then-Pope Benedict XVI. The Vatican investigators charged the American sisters were straying too far from traditional doctrines, but Pope Francis, who was elected in 2013, put an end to the investigation in 2015.
Campbell noted that senior members of the Curia, or Vatican administration, were at a spiritual retreat outside Rome all this week and so unable to attend the women’s conference.
“I don’t know if it’s a slap in the face or evidence of how much power they think we have,” she said.
Campbell heads Network, a social justice organization currently lobbying U.S. legislators in both houses of Congress to protect and maintain affordable health care.
She acknowledged the church was changing but said it was “outrageous” that it was failing to respond to the sex abuse crisis more effectively. While noting that Francis was seeking to create a more inclusive church, Campbell expressed concern about the church hierarchy and the response to clerical abuse.
“Most of the guys who run this place haven’t dealt with an ordinary human being who’s been abused, an ordinary woman or a boy who has been abused,” she said.
“If you don’t deal with the people you don’t have your heart broken open. The bureaucracy is so afraid of having their heart broken that they hide.”
No Vatican officials are scheduled to speak at the conference, which has drawn leaders and activists from around the world.
At a media conference on Monday, Kerry Robinson, an American who is global ambassador of the Leadership Roundtable, said her foundation, which promotes best practices and accountability in Catholic Church management and finances, was working to help churchmen solve challenges and ensure women advance in the church.
“I think the conversations we are having with cardinals are having an impact,” Robinson said.
This is the fourth consecutive year that the Vatican has held the women’s event to coincide with the U.N.-sponsored International Women’s Day.
The discovery of remains at a former home for unmarried mothers shows that Ireland is still in denial over a horrific legacy
It has been confirmed that significant numbers of children’s remains lie in a mass grave adjacent to a former home for unmarried mothers run by the Bon Secours Sisters in Tuam, County Galway. This is exactly where local historian Catherine Corless, who was instrumental in bringing the mass grave to light, said they would be. A state-established commission of inquiry into mother and baby homes recently located the site in a structure that “appears to be related to the treatment/containment of sewage and/or waste water”, but which we are not supposed to call a septic tank.
The archbishop of Tuam, Michael Neary, says he is “deeply shocked and horrified”. Deeply. Because what could the church have known about the abuse of children in its instutions? When Irish taoiseach Enda Kenny was asked if he was similarly shocked, he answered: “Absolutely. To think you pass by the location on so many occasions over the years.” To think. Because what would Kenny, in Irish politics since the 70s, know about state-funded, church-perpetrated abuse of women and children? Even the commission of inquiry – already under critique by the UN – said in its official statement that it was “shocked by this discovery”.
If I am shocked, it is by the pretence of so much shock. When Corless discovered death certificates for 796 children at the home between 1925 and 1961 but burial records for only two, it was clear that hundreds of bodies existed somewhere. They did not, after all, ascend into heaven like the virgin mother. Corless then uncovered oral histories from reliable local witnesses, offering evidence of where those children’s remains could be found. So what did the church and state think had happened? That the nuns had buried the babies in a lovely wee graveyard somewhere, but just couldn’t remember where?
Or maybe the church and state are expressing shock that nuns in mid-20th century Ireland could have so little regard for the lives and deaths of children in their care. The Ryan report in 2009 documented the systematic sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children in church-run, state-funded institutions. It revealed that when confronted with evidence of child abuse, the church would transfer abusers to other institutions, where they could abuse other children. The Christian Brothers legally blocked the report from naming and shaming its members. Meanwhile, Cardinal Seán Brady – now known to have participated in the cover-up of abuse by paedophile priest Brendan Smyth – muttered about how ashamed he was.
The same year, the Murphy report on the sexual abuse of children in the archdiocese of Dublin revealed that the Catholic church’s priorities in dealing with paedophilia were not child welfare, but rather secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of its reputation and the preservation of church assets. In 2013, the McAleese report documented the imprisonment of more than 10,000 women in church-run, state-funded laundries, where they worked in punitive industrial conditions without pay for the crime of being unmarried mothers.
So you will forgive me if I am sceptical of the professed shock of Ireland’s clergy, politicians and official inquiring bodies. We know too much about the Catholic church’s abuse of women and children to be shocked by Tuam. A mass grave full of the children of unmarried mothers is an embarrassing landmark when the state is still paying the church to run its schools and hospitals. Hundreds of dead babies are not an asset to those invested in the myth of an abortion-free Ireland; they inconveniently suggest that Catholic Ireland always had abortions, just very late-term ones, administered slowly by nuns after the children were already born.
As Ireland gears up for a probable referendum on abortion rights as well as a strategically planned visit from the pope, it may be time to stop acting as though the moral bankruptcy and hypocrisy of the Catholic church are news to us. You can say you don’t care, but – after the Ryan report, the Murphy report, the McAleese report, the Cloyne report, the Ferns report, the Raphoe report and now Tuam – you don’t get to pretend that you don’t know.
Two members of my family were born in the Tuam home, lived short lives there, and are likely lying in that septic tank – sorry, in that structure that “appears to be related to the treatment/containment of sewage and/or waste water”. Their mother died young, weakened from her time in the custody of the church. Because of this I understand that otherwise good, kind people in Ireland handed power over women and children’s lives to an institution they knew was abusive. And I wrestle with the reality that – in our schools and hospitals – we’re still handing power over women and children’s lives to the Catholic church. Perhaps, after Tuam, after everything, that’s what’s really shocking.
Marie Collins is exhausted. She’s been at the centre of a media whirlwind after resigning from Pope Francis’ child protection commission, a decision she took after becoming frustrated by Vatican politics and infighting.
“I think I’m going to throw a blanket over my head and sleep for a week,” she says.
This is not just a story about her stepping down from a committee. If that was the case she might have just taken everything in her stride. No, the last few days have been emotionally draining for Mrs Collins because, for her, the campaign against sexual abuse is personal and its prevention has been her life’s work.
One of the most prominent victims of clerical abuse, she was sexually assaulted as a 13-year-old girl by a chaplain at a Catholic hospital in Dublin. The ordeal caused her terrible damage; she felt the abuse was her fault, she was weighed down with guilt and lost her confidence. Like many others, her pain was compounded when the complaints against her abuser were ignored and mishandled by the Church.
But Ms Collins is a survivor. She became an expert in child protection, working with both the Archdiocese of Dublin and the Irish church to develop robust safeguarding guidelines. A straight talking woman of high principle, she is respected as an independent voice who has acted as a bridge between victims and the Church. After experiencing the dark days of cover ups in Ireland she understood the demands of survivors but at the same time wanted to help bishops make the necessary reforms.
So, in 2014, she agreed to sit on a commission reporting directly to the Pope on how the Church can improve child protection. Over the last three years the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors; has worked hard on pushing for reforms including better policies and trying to make bishops who cover-up accountable, all of which have been agreed to by Pope Francis.
“He accepted all the recommendations,” she tells me. “The problem is not with the Pope. The problem comes with the implementation and the unwillingness of those in his administration to put those proposals into place.”
It is inside the Roman Curia, at the Vatican’s doctrinal body, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), where there has been resistance and a refusal to co-operate with the Commission. They are the body which oversees allegations of clerical sexual abuse,; a task which requires sifting through evidence of horrific crimes committed by priests and then making recommendations for sanctions. It is; a gruelling job, but one the CDF guards zealously. To their eyes it is a task for the Church’s internal legal system where cases of “grave delicts” – the most serious sins – must be assessed correctly in accordance with canon law. It is a task almost exclusively carried out by priests.
So when the papal commission came along, with its lay experts of men and women, there were suspicions. This new group, the officials thought, did not have any juridical authority over their handling of canonical process. As far as they were concerned, this commission was just an advisory group and not even an official part of the Vatican.
The commission wanted to break into the closed circle and work with the CDF on improving the template for bishops drawing up child protection guidelines, a process that had been underway since 2011. Ms Collins and the team also worked to ensure there was a mechanism in place to ensure bishops who failed to keep to their guidelines were held accountable.
“You can have the best guidelines in the world but if you don’t implement them, and if there are no consequences if a bishop doesn’t follow them, then they are not worth the paper they are written on,” she stresses.
Marie Collins says there was a lack of co-operation on setting up a procedure to hold bishops responsible, which is still not properly up and running. Vatican sources say there is already a tribunal in the CDF which could be used for such cases although no case has yet been brought. Meanwhile the Pope announced another procedure to hold the hierarchy accountable using other Vatican departments.
The final straw for Collins, however, was the lack of pastoral concern for victims and it came when one Vatican department refused a request to reply to letters from survivors.
“It is what the Pope has spoken about – the clericalism and that arrogance of ‘we know best’ along with a resentment of outsiders and lay people coming in,” she says.
“That is the reason for me stepping down. It’s because of the attitude which says ‘we’ve been doing it for years and why should we listen to you’. Taking advice is seen as somehow reducing their authority.”
Right from the start, Mrs Collins explains, the commission encountered resistance.
“Early on none of the Vatican departments to send representatives to talk with our working groups,” she explains. “If you are asked to improve something then you ask people to help but there was resistance even to us wanting to discuss the issues.”
She goes on: “I found that very disheartening. I could see no reason why that would happen. In the outside world it would be normal to work with a group coming to help you on an issue. The first thing you would do would be to talk to them. Even that was resisted in the beginning.”
Attitudes have started to change and Mrs Collins stresses there is a new openness in the Roman Curia to learning from the expertise of commission members.
“Its always been my wish to help people understand about abuse and how it is caused. I think its very good that departments in the Vatican are open and asking for training, that’s really positive,” she says.
“We had an event last year for the Congregation for Clergy and the new bishops and there are training events for other dicasteries. This clericalism, this arrogance that shouldn’t be there is not universal and I don’t want to speak negatively of the entire curia.”
Her overarching point is the need for a change in culture. And this starts at the top. The Pope is in the firing line for not “getting it” when it comes to abuse and for adopting an overly merciful stance to abusers. Furthermore, while he has met with individual members who have stayed at his residence, the Casa Santa Marta, he has never attended a meeting of the commission
Mrs Collins says Francis has made some questionable decisions on abuse but believes he has never done anything to put children at risk. She’s also heartened by his calls for “zero tolerance” on the matter.
“The core point is that no one has been put into a position of endangering children as a result of his decisions,” she says.
What seems to have worn heavily on her are the internal politics of the Vatican, a place which is byzantine and confusing to outsiders at the best of times. Add to the mix the Pope’s shakeup of the Roman Curia and you have the commission trying to work within a cocktail of competing empires guarding their turf during a period of transition.
Mrs Collins says she took up her role in the commission with her eyes wide open about the internal politics although now admits: “they were worse than I could have imagined.”
The word in Rome is that opponents of the papal commission on safeguarding were resistant to their recommendations in order to undermine Francis, something which Mrs Collins describes as “shameful”.
“I can’t get my head round why men of God would allow their internal politics to hinder the work of safeguarding children from the horror of abuse,” she says. “I can’t see how any internal power struggles, whatever they may be, can stop you from taking steps to prevent harming children.”
Mrs Collins was the last survivor working on the commission – the other, Peter Saunders, is on a permanent leave of absence – although she is not completely cutting her ties with the Church and will continue to be involved in educational courses at the Vatican.
What she resents is the argument made in recent days that, as a victim, it is better for her to remain outside the official Church structures because she can’t both implement policies and advocate for survivors.
“Just because you are abused as a child and put in the survivor box, does not mean you can’t be an expert and work with other experts,” she says. “In 20 years here in the diocese [of Dublin] I’ve never worked in any other way than independently. I was never afraid of the Church nor was I afraid of the survivors. I work simply and solely for the protection of children.”
Her independence and impartiality means that Mrs Collins’ resignation is a big loss for the Church as it continues to grapple with the monumental problem of clerical sexual abuse. Her work on the commission shows that progress is being made and the group says it will press on with its work. But this latest debacle, which has laid bare some of the internal resistance to reform inside the Church, show there’s still a long way to go.
A high-profile member of a commission advising Pope Francis on ways to protect minors from sexual abuse by the clergy resigned from the panel on Wednesday, citing what she called “cultural resistance” from the Vatican.
Marie Collins, who was molested by a priest in Ireland when she was 13, expressed frustration over what she called reluctance among the Roman Catholic Church’s hierarchy to implement the commission’s recommendations — even those approved by the pope.
“I feel I have no choice but to resign if I am to retain my integrity,” Ms. Collins said in a statement to National Catholic Reporter. The lack of action, she wrote, “is a reflection of how this whole abuse crisis in the church has been handled: with fine words in public and contrary actions behind closed doors.”
Ms. Collins was one of two victims of clergy sexual abuse appointed by Francis to the commission when it was created in 2014. A year ago, the commission suspended the other victim, Peter Saunders, after he accused the panel of failing to deliver on its promises of reform and accountability, and he has been on a leave of absence since.
In outlining the initiatives proposed by the commission in the past three years, Ms. Collins spoke of “stumbling blocks” and the difficulties it had faced in getting cooperation from various Vatican departments.
A tribunal to hold negligent bishops accountable recommended by the commission and approved by the pope in June 2015 “was never implemented,” she noted. Guidelines issued by the pope last June to discipline bishops who had covered up abuse were supposed to go into effect in September, “but it is impossible to know if it has actually begun,” she wrote.
She also said the commission did not have the proper resources to do its job: In its first year, it did not have an office or a staff.
But the last straw, she said, was that a Vatican department was refusing to cooperate with a recommendation that all correspondence from victims of clerical abuse 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!” Ms. Collins said.
“The reluctance of some in the Vatican Curia to implement recommendations or cooperate with the work of a commission when the purpose is to improve the safety of children and vulnerable adults around the world is unacceptable,” she added, referring to the Vatican’s administrative arm.
Commenting on Ms. Collins’s departure on Wednesday, the commission’s president, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, thanked her for “extraordinary contributions.”
The commission said in a statement that Francis had “accepted Ms. Collins’s resignation with deep appreciation for her work on behalf of the victims/survivors of clergy abuse.”
In her statement, Ms. Collins noted her disappointment over the reduction of punishments against abusive priests that Francis had allowed in some cases.
The Associated Press reported last week that Francis had lessened sanctions against a handful of pedophile priests in an effort to apply his vision of a merciful church. But one of those priests, Mauro Inzoli, was later convicted by an Italian criminal court for sex crimes against children as young as 12. He is now facing a second church trial after new evidence emerged against him, according to the report.
In her three years with the commission, Ms. Collins said she never had the opportunity to meet with the pope.
She said she would have asked him to give the commission the power to implement its recommendations, to provide it with more funds and to allow it to recruit outside professionals. Nonetheless, she expressed confidence in Francis’ comprehension of the seriousness of the issue.
“The pope does at heart understand the horror of abuse and the need for those who would hurt minors to be stopped,” she wrote.
Voice of the Faithful, a global movement of Roman Catholics who support victims of sexual abuse by members of the clergy, said it was “disheartened” at the resignation of the lone victim from the panel, and urged Francis to remove the Vatican officials who delayed or refused to implement plans to protect minors.
“The church cannot ignore modern-day prophets like Marie and still claim to care about removing clerical sex abusers,” Donna B. Doucette, the executive director of Voice of the Faithful, said in a statement.