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Vatican sex abuse commission meets amid new hopes, old concerns

Irish abuse victim Marie Collins, left, who has quit the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, looks at the commission head, Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley, during their first briefing at the Holy See press office at the Vatican on May 3, 2014. Photo courtesy Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi
(RNS) Abuse victim Marie Collins, left, member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, looks at Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley of Bostonduring their first briefing at the Holy See press office at the Vatican May 3, 2014. For use ONLY with RNS-VATICAN-ABUSE, transmitted Feb. 6, 2015. Photo courtesy REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

(RNS) Abuse victim Marie Collins, left, member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, looks at Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley of Bostonduring their first briefing at the Holy See press office at the Vatican May 3, 2014. For use ONLY with RNS-VATICAN-ABUSE, transmitted Feb. 6, 2015. Photo courtesy REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

VATICAN CITY (RNS) When Marie Collins first joined a new Vatican commission set up by Pope Francis to fight sex abuse, she had high hopes for quick action despite a wariness of church promises made in the decades since she was raped by a priest as a girl in Ireland.

Francis had been shaking up the church in remarkable ways almost since the moment of his election nearly two years ago, and last May he finally set his reformist sights on the clergy sexual abuse scandal: He named Collins and seven others — mainly lay people and experts — to an unprecedented commission tasked with giving him recommendations for changes.

In December, he doubled the commission’s membership, adding another prominent abuse victim.

Yet it’s only now, as the full commission begins a critical three-day Vatican meeting on Friday (Feb. 6), that Collins thinks advocates have a chance to really shake things up — though there are still no guarantees.

“I find it very frustrating how slowly the church moves, as a lay person coming in from the outside,” Collins, 68, said in an interview on the eve of the meeting, which runs through Sunday.

“It’s a shock to the system really how slowly they move,” she said. “I would definitely like to see things moving more quickly. But you have to try and achieve what you can achieve. All we can do is get in there and try and move as fast as we can. But I personally do have a great frustration with the speed of the church.”

Collins said she remains hopeful “but pragmatic at the same time.” She strongly endorsed the pope’s supportive actions and words on the issue. “In church terms, he is speeding along. He has been moving things very quickly in all areas.”

In fact, at the behest of the commission members, Francis on Thursday directed the world’s bishops and heads of religious orders to cooperate with the Vatican commission and to take “whatever steps are necessary” to protect children from sexual abuse by clerics.

Referring to his own meeting with abuse victims last summer, Francis wrote that the experience “reaffirmed my conviction that everything possible must be done to rid the Church of the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors and to open pathways of reconciliation and healing for those who were abused.”

The pope said that “priority must not be given to any other kind of concern, whatever its nature, such as the desire to avoid scandal, since there is absolutely no place in ministry for those who abuse minors.”

Cardinal Sean P.  O’Malley celebrates Sunday Mass with other American Cardinals and  Archbishop Joseph Augustine Di Noia, O.P. at the Pontifical North American College March 3, 2013. RNS photo by Gregory L. Tracy/The Pilot.

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley celebrates Sunday Mass with other American Cardinals and Archbishop Joseph Augustine Di Noia, O.P. at the Pontifical North American College March 3, 2013. RNS photo by Gregory L. Tracy/The Pilot.

Francis also agreed with panel members to expand the commissionadding nine new people, for a total of 17. The group is led by Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley and has 10 lay people (six of them are women), two nuns and four priests, plus the cardinal. Two of the lay members — Collins and Peter Saunders of Great Britain — are survivors of abuse.

The expanded commission brings more expertise and more geographic balance. Collins said the panel had originally been very “Euro-centric” and needs to look at the broader picture “because so many things are so different in different parts of the world.”

But the larger commission and the global nature of the Catholic Church could add to the complexity rather than reducing it.

Laws against abuse in countries in Asia and Africa, for example, can be so harsh when it comes to homosexuality or pedophilia that even an accusation, much less a conviction, could lead to imprisonment or death. Then there is the acceptance of abuse in some cultures, or outright denial.

“In Africa, in particular you have some bishops who say, ‘Oh, we don’t have that problem in our country,’” Collins said. “If you can’t even get the fact that it’s a problem, how can you get prevention measures?”

The other obvious challenge for the commission is the enduring absence of any victims from the U.S., which has been the epicenter of the abuse crisis for years.

Many American victims have been among the most vocal critics of Francis’ anti-abuse policies and the commission, and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, reiterated that criticism this week.

“Again, a pope ‘talks the talk’ on abuse while refusing to take even one real step toward ‘walking the walk,’” said David Clohessy, national director of SNAP.

David Clohessy, left, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, and Minnesota attorney Jeff Anderson speak outside a hotel after announcing a lawsuit against members of the Catholic church in Mexico City, in 2006. Photo by REUTERS/Henry Romero. *NOTE: This photo can only be used with RNS-VATICAN-ABUSE, originally transmitted Feb. 6, 2015.

David Clohessy, left, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, and Minnesota attorney Jeff Anderson speak outside a hotel after announcing a lawsuit against members of the Catholic church in Mexico City, in 2006. Photo by REUTERS/Henry Romero. *NOTE: This photo can only be used with RNS-VATICAN-ABUSE, originally transmitted Feb. 6, 2015.

“The most decisive pope in memory who is quickly and dramatically changing church finances, governance and morale remains stunningly unwilling to deal in any meaningful way with the church’s greatest ongoing crisis.”

In an email, Clohessy praised Collins and Saunders as “smart and compassionate individuals who are brave to take on this role.” But he said he hopes they “won’t end up feeling used or betrayed” if the commission does nothing, as Clohessy expects.

Saunders already put the Vatican on notice, telling a British newspaper on his arrival here that he will demand that the Vatican force bishops around the world to open their files and report any clergy abusers to authorities without delay.

“The Holy Father is a supreme monarch and bishops around the world are answerable to him,” Saunders told the Telegraph. “If he says they must give up the documents, they can’t argue with that. It’s one of the things I will be saying to the commission — unless they throw me out.”

“Victims of abuse are not interested in financial compensation from the church, we just want a sincere apology, for the church to say ‘We will cast out these vipers in our midst,'” he said.

Other victims’ advocates have been encouraged by small signs of progress. Last fall, O’Malley told “60 Minutes” — and reiterated the point in a blog post — that bishops who do not protect children from abusers need to be held accountable.

O’Malley said, however, that the church needs to develop a system for disciplining bishops, a task Collins said she and the other commission members also want to pursue as a priority.

“It has to be something that doesn’t depend on what pope or bishop is in place,” she said. “It has to be a firm, fixed structure that will be immovable and will remain in place no matter who the leadership are and what their views are.”

This weekend’s talks will be key to seeing if that will happen.

“Survivors and everyone else are waiting to see if this commission achieves anything. We certainly don’t want to be waiting 20 years to find out if there’s anything to come out of it that’s worthwhile,” Collins said.

“I certainly would be expecting to see more news coming out (after the meeting) and more about what is happening and what is actually being planned.”


About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • Thankyou for this informative article. As a victim/survivor of clergy sexual abuse as a young doctor in Ireland, I was grateful that Archbishop Diarmuid Martin was willing to listen to my story, and do something positive to remove the predator priest from active ministry. As an American, I have been saddened by the lack of care and the re-victimization of victims by the American hierarchy. I fear that the Vatican policies of secrecy and denial of the truth, reinforced by Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI are still active. If that is true, then the hierarchy might feel bound under a misguided obedience to ignore the command of Jesus to protect the innocence of children.

  • Sadly the sex abuse and cover up within the church hierarchy throughout the world is still going on to this day. Cardinals and bishops are still not removing accused predator clergy, and they are not reporting to law enforcement. Their so called “zero tolerance” policy is not being followed by the bishops who created it. They don’t have to, because there is no punishment to force the bishops to change their ways of protecting their power and the institution rather than protecting innocent children.

    As long as Pope Francis avoids taking decisive action by firing and demoting bishops who cover up child sex crimes, nothing will change and children are still not safe within this secret system.
    Judy Jones, SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests)

  • From the Pope’s letter to the Commission for the Protection of Minors:

    “…For all of these reasons, I now ASK for your close and complete cooperation with the Commission for the Protection of Minors….”
    (capitals inserted for emphasis)

    And what are the consequences should certain bishops and cardinals choose NOT to cooperate with the work of the Commission for the Protection of Minors? In those dioceses, who will ensure that the rules, regulations and protocol are being followed as outlined in the Pope’s letter? Non-compliance is not that unlikely given that we had certain dioceses here in the US that would not conduct or allow audits of their programs as directed by the USCCB guidelines relative to clergy abuse.

  • And what of the PONTIFICAL SECRET, a legal loophole / technicality in RC Canon Law that remains in force and insures that the cover up of Roman Catholic clergy abuse crimes will continue! This is what transparency and accountability in the unholy Roman Catholic “church” looks like!
    READ it and Weep: Popes ordered silence, former judge Kieran Tapsell claims in book / Source: Newcastle Herald – Australia / May 27, 2014

    A FORMER NSW judge who studied to be a priest with a future notorious Hunter child sex offender has launched a devastating critique of the Catholic Church’s six popes, including two new saints, who covered up a global child sex abuse crisis for nearly a century.

    Popes Pius XI, Pius XII, Paul VI, Benedict XVI and the recently named papal saints John Paul II and John XXIII ‘‘effectively facilitated child sexual abuse’’, retired acting NSW district court judge Kieran Tapsell argues in his new book, Potiphar’s Wife: The Vatican’s Secret and Child Sexual Abuse.

    While canon law until 1917 required sex offender priests to be dismissed and reported to police, a series of canon law changes and papal decrees since imposed a ‘‘permanent silence’’ that continues to prohibit reporting of some matters in some Australian states even today, Tapsell said.

    He reserved some of his most devastating criticism for Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, who blamed Irish bishops in 2010 after the release of damning reports into child sexual abuse in that country, but failed to mention bishops were prohibited from reporting cases to police.

    ‘‘The cover-up of child sexual abuse did not occur because of bad faith or incompetence on the part of bishops, albeit in some cases that existed, but because they were ordered to cover it up through canon law by six popes since Pius XI in 1922,’’ Tapsell said.

    Benedict XVI ‘‘knew that he was part of the Roman Curia that was administering, confirming and entrenching a system of privilege of clergy that not only protected child sex offenders from going to jail, but that led to further sex attacks by them on children’’.

    While Australian bishops in the 1990s had shown ingenuity and even courage in trying to deal with child sex offender priests including the notorious Hunter priest Denis McAlinden, that courage had ‘‘now gone out the window’’ because they refused to ‘‘face the truth about the six popes who have orchestrated a cover-up’’.

    Tapsell trained to be a priest for six years in the 1960s. He remembers fellow trainee, the late Hunter priest Jim Fletcher, as ‘‘just an average sort of person’’ whose conviction in 2005 for child sex offences was a shock.

    Pope Francis’s comments on the child sexual abuse crisis were a concern, but secular inquiries like the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry, the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into Hunter cases, and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse would force change, Tapsell said.

    ‘‘Some things are already clear because of the royal commission. Towards Healing [the Australian Catholic Church’s system of dealing with child sexual abuse cases] is finished. The days of the Church investigating itself are finished.’’

    Potiphar’s Wife: The Vatican’s Secret and Child Sexual Abuse, ATF Press.

  • As a victim of childhood sexual abuse, this topic is near and dear to my heart, and I feel that those who perpetrate this crime should be held responsible for their aberrant behavior against children – those innocents that priests, above all, were entrusted to protect, and should be brought to justice.

    When the priest sexual-abuse scandal was made public, and the laity lost their trust and faith in the clergy, the RCC suffered greatly because of it. We – as the laity – knew that it would take more than a few years, if ever, for the Church to gain back the trust that was lost due to the bad judgement and cover-ups by bishops, and the subsequent mishandling of the situation by the heads of parishes – be they bishops, archbishops, or cardinals – who covered-up this issue. Since the beginning, the priest sexual-abuse scandal was mishandled by the Vatican. Once the scandal publicly broke, victims and their families expected the Vatican to: acknowledge the issue, confess to the roles certain bishops, archbishops, and cardinals had in exacerbating the issue by transferring problem-priests to other parishes, cooperate fully with law-enforcement, and make full-restitution to the victims of these crimes (even though one can never, ever compensate a child for the innocence a pedophile has stolen from them). Instead investigations were delayed- and in some cases dismissed entirely due to “lack of evidence”, no apologies were made, and restitution to victims came much too late. Furthermore, it took until Frances’ time for the Church to take responsibility for what happened to these innocent children, acknowledge its culpability in allowing pedophilia to continue and run rampant among the clergy, and take steps to assure parents their children will be safe in the future.

    Look, not all priests are bad, and Pope Francis is currently leading the charge to deal with the issue of pedophilia among the clergy in a very aggressive and public manner, so those who were affected by the priest-abuse scandal know that they are not being shoved into the background and ignored. It is a fact that Francis operates with much greater transparency than the pontiffs of the recent past, and I have every reason to believe that he is a man of action. I have faith the Pontiff will take positive steps to make certain this situation will be resolved once and for all, and that he will make no exceptions to the law for those priests who defiled their oath to protect the innocent and act as Christ would have them act.
    JB Richards
    Author of “Miriamne the Magdala-The First Chapter in the Yeshua and Miri Novel Series” and Content Creator for The Miriamne Page

  • Recommended Reading for those following this discussion:
    The Roman Catholic “church” has always maintained that her Canon law trumps civil law. Moreover, historically they have likewise sought to suppress freedom of religion wherever it held sway and has proven to be a threat to both religious and civil liberties. This they do through their CONCORDATS.
    1) “A concordat is a legal agreement between a country and the Vatican. It can set up a theological fiefdom where certain human rights do not apply—and where they can never again be reintroduced without the consent of the Catholic Church. This is why concordats represent a fundamental threat to both democracy and human rights. The Vatican finds many uses for its approximately 200 current concordats. In May 2012 the Italian bishops even said that their concordat excused them from having to report to the police suspected cases of child abuse by fellow priests.”

    2) IRELAND . . a CATHOLIC country by design, powerfully illustrates what happens when the RC “church” gains control of a nation and the rights of individuals are subordinated to the church!

    1) Article: ‘Concordats – human rights – separation of church and state / Source: Concordat Watch
    2) Article: ‘Everything you need to know about Ireland’s disaffected Catholics / Source: the week / June 28, 2014

  • A Case in Point . . Background on Archbishop Josef Wesolowski Case . .
    Article: How the Vatican evades human rights obligations through Canon Law, diplomatic immunity and other dodges / Source/Website: Concordat Watch
    Diplomatic immunity in action: Archbishop Wesolowski is whisked away to the Vatican (start quote)
    However, this treaty was never meant to allow accused rapists of children to go free. Yet this appeared to be the intention when Bishop Paul Gallagher, the papal nuncio or pope’s ambassador to Australia refused to hand over to prosecutors documents on two priests who had abused more than 100 children over 40 years. [x] The nuncio invoked diplomatic immunity. However, as a UN committee later reminded the Vatican, [y] as a signatory of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it was obliged to hand over this evidence. [z] Pope Francis was apparently so pleased by the nuncio’s attempts to block justice in Australia’s worst clerical abuse scandal, that the next year he promoted him to archbishop and to the number three post in his kingdom  the Vatican’s Foreign Minister. [zz]  
    as happened in the Dominican Republic. [5] There on June 24, 2013 a deacon was arrested and admitted to procuring impoverished boys to be sexually abused by the papal nuncio Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski. [6] By the time the deacon appeared on TV and said that others in the Church knew about this [7] the nuncio had vanished. He had been secretly whisked away and reappeared in the Vatican. 
    At the TV station they suspected that there had been a leak.
    A “dossier” accusing papal nuncio Archbishop Josef Wesolowski of sex abuse of minors was sent to Pope Francis sometime in July [2013] by Santo Domingo Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez. The pope found the information credible enough to dismiss Wesolowski, nuncio to both the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, on Aug. 21 via confidential letter N.2706/PR to the bishops of both countries.
    Neither the civil authorities nor the public knew about Wesolowski until a local TV program did an exposé on Aug. 31. The result of a year-long investigation, the broadcast contained testimony from residents of the Zona Colonial in Santo Domingo that Wesolowski paid minors for sex.
    Three days after the TV broadcast, a local bishop confirmed that Wesolowski had been recalled for sexually abusing minors.
    Wesolowski reportedly had left the country only a few days before. [8]
    In this case the Vatican acted against its own much-touted guidelines:
    the church failed to inform the local authorities of the evidence against him, secretly recalled him to Rome […] before he could be investigated, and then invoked diplomatic immunity for Mr. Wesolowski so that he could not face trial in the Dominican Republic. [9]
    Once he was safely in Rome the Vatican “confirmed that Wesolowski is a citizen of the Vatican city state, that the Vatican doesn’t extradite its citizens and that as a nuncio, or Holy See ambassador, Wesolowski enjoys full diplomatic immunity”. [10] Experts in international law say that the Vatican could have lifted the nuncio’s diplomatic immunity to let him face trial in the Dominical Republic (which could hardly be accused of having an anti-Catholic judiciary). [11]
    However, the Church came under increasing pressure when the United Nations Committee against Torture stepped in. In June 2014 it urged the Vatican, if the investigation warranted it, to either try Wesolowski itself under the Vatican State criminal code (not canon law) or let someone else do so — and report back on the outcome. [12]
    In August 2014, the Vatican gave Wesolwski a secret canon law trial to determine if he had violated Church doctrine. The Vatican tribunal found Wesolwski’s guilty of abusing young boys and defrocked him. But it refused to provide any information about his whereabouts or how he pleaded to the charges and refused to release contact information for his lawyer. [13] This deprived Mr. Wesolowski of his diplomatic immunity — so the Vatican then fell back on his Vatican State citizenship as the reason for not handing him over.
    To avoid further challenges to its jurisdiction, the Vatican refused to provide the necessary documents to Polish prosecutors, who had hoped to try Wesolowski, a dual Vatican-Polish citizen. [14] The Vatican also got the Dominican Republic to fall into line. In August 2014, the day after Wesolowski lost his diplomatic immunity, the Santo Dominican prosecutor’s office announced that it was launching an investigation. [15] However, by the end of the year, the Dominican Republic’s top prosecutor was expressing “appreciation and satisfaction” with the Vatican’s actions (!) and said that the Vatican was the right place for the trial. [16] The Dominican authorities even stonewalled the legal inquiries of Polish prosecutors about Wesolowski,  [17] which forced Poland to suspend its inquiry. [18] This cleared the way for the Vatican to conduct its own trial under the criminal law of its own state, which would satisfy the UN commitee, but keep control over the proceedings.
    A Polish expert on church law, Prof. Pawel Borecki, explained why the Vatican was determined to maintain control:
    The Vatican will seek that this case does not go beyond its borders. Wesolowski is a high-ranking diplomat. He has knowledge of how the Roman curia works. He may also know about pedophilia in the church and if other high-ranking priests are involved in the crime. In a trial abroad he could reveal everything. Therefore, we can expect that the Vatican will not release him and it will hand down a severe punishment. [19] (end quote)

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