Catastrophic Leadership on Abuse
The resignation of an abuse survivor from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors is an indictment of the Vatican’s commitment to responding appropriately to a festering scandal.
It is deplorable that 15 years after the abuse scandal broke in Boston, the Church at the highest levels is still failing in doing so.
Marie Collins, an Irish abuse survivor of unimpeachable integrity, resigned because of obstruction by some in the Roman curia to papally-approved recommendations by the commission.
While she praised Pope Francis and her fellow commission members for trying to implement best practice, she indirectly blamed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) for failing to cooperate with the commission.
The final straw seems to have been a blanket refusal by CDF officials, in direct disobedience to the pope, to implement a recommendation that all correspondence from abuse survivors be responded to.
It is difficult to understand how this was not a standard practice even before the Commission for the Protection of Minors made their recommendation. The refusal to implement this very simple recommendation not only disrespected the commission but also showed contempt towards abuse survivors.
The commission clearly had an uphill battle from its inception in 2014, even to the point of not being allocated an office. These failings, and others detailed by Ms Collins, suggest that the Vatican is not united in safeguarding minors.
The CDF is in charge of handling cases of priests accused of sexual abuse as well as of reviewing and approving the policies developed by bishops’ conferences in safeguarding minors from abuse.
Ms Collins alleges that the CDF simply did not circulate the commission’s template of safeguarding guidelines to the world’s bishops’ conferences, and refused to cooperate in streamlining that template with its own.
It may well be that power struggles and turf-protection are at the root of the obviously hostile relationship between the CDF and the commission. If so, then the scandal is magnified by the incongruity that the safety of children should serve as a political football.
Ms Collins’ resignation comes at a time when the abuse scandal has returned into the spotlight through Australia’s Royal Commission of Inquiry into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which held excruciating hearings for three weeks.
The five archbishops of the country had to agree that the abuse crisis was caused by “a catastrophic failure” in Church leadership.
Archbishop Timothy Costelloe of Perth told the hearings that the Church “was a law unto itself, that it was somehow or other so special and so unique and, in a sense, so important that it stood aside from the normal things” that would exist in society.
It seems that in some quarters in the Vatican, these attitudes persist. In these circumstances, how can the faithful be asked to invest their trust in the Church?
Ms Collins’ resignation also coincided with — but was not cited by her as a reason — Pope Francis’ decision to reduce sanctions against a handful of abuser priests whom the CDF wanted to laicise, citing his vision of a merciful Church. Instead the priests were sentenced to penalties including a lifetime of penance and prayer, and removal from public ministry.
At best, the pope’s decision was tone-deaf, and it will come back to haunt him. It certainly failed to conform to his repeated call for “zero tolerance” for abusers.
We must remember that the heart of the scandal is not the incidence of abuse among priests, distressing though this is, but the “catastrophic failure” in leadership within the Catholic hierarchy.
Pope Francis knows this and rightly approved the recommendation by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors that a judicial section be established by the CDF to hold accountable bishops and superiors of religious orders who failed to deal with abuse cases.
Such a tribunal should have been established a decade ago. The CDF, it seems, has not implemented it, despite being mandated to do so by the pope.
In a statement, Ms Collins characterised the way the Church has handled the abuse crisis in devastating terms: “with fine words in public and contrary actions behind closed doors”.
Concrete and focused action must be taken now to put this right.