ELENA CURTI Along with senior clergy, including Vatican figures, the clerical abuse survivor Marie Collins was among those attending this week’s historic “healing and renewal” symposium in Rome. She talked to The Tablet about the years of being ignored by the Church and her hopes that the tide is turning For many victims of clerical abuse, Marie Collins’ presence in Rome this week felt like a betrayal. They considered her decision to address an international gathering of priests and Religious as fraternising with the enemy. The American survivors’ group, Snap, claimed the symposium, Towards Healing and Renewal, held at the Jesuits’ Gregorian University, was “cheap window dressing” – a mere semblance of action rather than an initiative that would lead to real change.
Hundreds of delegates from bishops’ conferences and religious orders travelled to Rome for the four-day event, which sought to carve out a universal response to the scandal of sexual abuse of minors by clergy. Since the first revelations were made 20 years ago in Boston, priests have been accused and convicted of abuse in many countries, particularly the United States, Ireland, Austria and Germany, leaving both victims and the Church scarred – in different ways – by the experience.
Some commentators were critical that the conference was not happening within the Vatican itself, suggesting that this was perhaps because some members of the Roman Curia opposed the initiative, and in particular the role of Marie Collins. But after three days in Rome Mrs Collins said she was feeling more confident that those behind the initiative were sincere. While she still detected a certain caution, she felt that was simply because it was the “first move”, but was nevertheless convinced that the Vatican was “four-square” behind the initiative.
She quoted Mgr Charles Scicluna, the Promoter of Justice at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who impressed many conference observers with his determination to address the problem.“He said there were people within the Church who thought they did not have to change but he recognised they were wrong. He realises that we really have to do something,” she said.
Marie Collins has travelled a long and difficult road since she suffered horrific abuse at the age of 13 from a priest-chaplain in a Dublin children’s hospital. There were decades of mental illness, a long battle with the Church to accept what had happened to her and other victims, campaigns to improve child protection and lobbying the Irish Government to set up the Murphy Commission, which uncovered a disturbing scale of abuse by clergy in the Dublin Archdiocese.
“To me this symposium is just the beginning of what should be a long road of getting it right for the future, and looking to prevent what happened in the past from happening again,” she said, as she settled down on a sofa in her hotel lobby on the eve of her address to the symposium. “Although I have been so critical of the Church, I have to welcome something that looks like an effort to get something right because you can’t just keep criticising, criticising, criticising. You have to give credit where credit is due. I will probably be really criticised for saying that by survivors. But if there is a chance they are trying to change, you have to encourage that.” The same attitude prevailed in Ireland when Mrs Collins helped to set up the child protection office in Dublin Archdiocese in 2003. She was also on the committee that helped draft the Irish Church’s child protection guidelines, though it disbanded because of differences with the sponsoring bodies. More recently, she collaborated with the apostolic visitation to Ireland and had two meetings with visitor Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston. A year ago she helped prepare the Liturgy of Lament and Repentance for Clerical and Religious Sexual Abuse delivered at Dublin’s Pro Cathedral in the presence of Cardinal O’Malley and the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin.
Mrs Collins, 65, arrived in Rome with her husband, Raymond, just before the city had its worst snowfalls for 27 years. She was in huge demand for media interviews, and symposium participants queued up to meet her. By the time we finally got to talk, she admitted she was exhausted but continued to take calls from journalists on her mobile phone.
At the opening press conference, she said the time had come for the Church to stop apologising for what the abusers did and to acknowledge the wrong that bishops had committed by covering up the abuse and allowing more children to get hurt. Apologies, she implied, were relatively easy. Seeking forgiveness from the victims was harder but much more meaningful. She told me she was thinking of her own situation when she made the remark.
“What is needed is accountability, an individual bishop saying, ‘Yes, I should have stopped that man, I should have reported that man. Please forgive me for not having done it and leaving him to go on to abuse you.’ So, in that respect, asking for forgiveness is different to just saying ‘sorry’. It is taking on responsibility for your actions and admitting that you either did something or negligently didn’t do something that caused somebody to be abused.” She would also like the Church to investigate why bishops behaved in the way they did by looking at its hierarchical structure and bishops’ autonomy. The visitation in Ireland was partly about this, she felt, and she is eagerly awaiting its report. For decades Marie Collins buried the memory of the abuse she endured, but it destroyed her life for many years. She suffered mentalhealth problems, including deep depression and agoraphobia. While receiving therapy at the age of 47, she talked about the abuse for the first time and was persuaded by a doctor to report what had happened to a church representative.
She was fobbed off twice by the Church, first by a local curate who did not want to know the name of the abusive priest and told Mrs Collins it was “probably your fault”. Ten years later, in 1995, she reported the abuse to her local archbishop, Desmond Connell, later a cardinal. He did not disclose that her abuser, Fr Paul McGennis, had admitted the assaults. The diocese refused to cooperate with the police investigation although McGennis later pleaded guilty and was jailed for a series of assaults.
“My diocese made statements that I was misleading the public, that what I was saying wasn’t true,” said Mrs Collins. “I was so angry when I realised that they were protecting my abuser and that was their normal way of doing things. I wanted the truth to come out because I didn’t want any other abusers to be protected.” I asked her how she would feel if some bishops in her audience had behaved like Cardinal Connell and failed to act on credible allegations of abuse. She replied that she hoped she could help to educate them. Notably absent from the symposium was Archbishop Martin, with whom Marie Collins has worked closely and whom she considers a “shining light” among Irish bishops on this issue. “He knows exactly what should be done,” she said. “He has brought in child protection measures that he rigidly implements. He gave all his files to the inquiries, he cooperated with the police, he has huge respect among the faithful. He has a lot of respect for survivors. He meets anyone who wants to meet him.” Mrs Collins did not want to comment on Cardinal Sean Brady, who attended the symposium on behalf of the Irish bishops. Last year, after it emerged that he had played a part in covering up the crimes of an abusive priest in the mid-1970s, he declined to resign his post.
It is clear, when listening to Marie Collins, that she is no longer angry. She was fortunate, she said, to have got the appropriate counselling and therapy. “With help you can move on,” she explained. “It doesn’t mean you forget but if you are carrying all that anger it eats away at you. I will still look for justice, I’ll still speak out and I will still want children to be protected. But I am not going to live my life with ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’ printed on my forehead.” Part of getting better has been the process of helping others: she founded a group in Dublin to support people with depression, ran a helpline service and is a trustee of the Marie Collins Foundation, a charity that gives support, via the internet and mobile technologies, victims who have suffered sexual abuse and harm and their families. “What I love to see is children who are abused getting help as soon as possible. My help was delayed by my own silence for so many years, but if I had got that help at age 15 or 20 it would have saved 20 or 30 years of problems.” Mrs Collins continues to describe herself as a Catholic although she has found it difficult to practise her faith in recent years. At a press conference after her address to the symposium, she talked about the lack of spiritual help she had been offered by the Church as a survivor. It was common, she said, for the Church to treat survivors as outsiders, and that was a mistake.
The invitation to the Rome conference has brought Marie Collins inside. The Church seems to be listening to her at last. Her hope must be that it will also act.