Justice Delayed: When Will Vatican ‘Own’ Abuse Scandal?

Archbishop Anthony Mancini of Halifax, seems an amiable and reasonable (though serious) type of guy, who recently led the bishops of the Atlantic Canadian dioceses to the eternal city for an “ad lumina” visit with Pope Francis.

The purpose of these visits—which, as Mancini told Steve Murphy of CTV Atlantic News, all bishops undertake every five years—is to inform the Pope of the state of the faith in their jurisdictions. And while his excellency wouldn’t be familiar with each and every one of them or their various situations, according to Mancini they were greeted by a very “pastoral” and “approachable” man who Mancini said made them very welcome, talking to them as one bishop to his brother bishops.

Mancini’s news on the state of Catholicism in Atlantic Canada could not have been too comforting to the Pope, given that only 10-15% of some 900,000 Catholics in our dioceses are actively involved in the Church. While this can be explained, in part, by the rise of secularism around the world, Mancini told Murphy that when he added that the sexual abuse scandal represented an even greater problem for the Church, the Pope covered his face with his hands. To Mancini, it was a sign of the pontiff’s grief over a situation that continues to be the most tragic he has faced in his four-year papacy.


Bad month

Marie Collins (Photo via www.mariecollins.net)

Marie Collins (Photo via www.mariecollins.net)

In fact, March 2017 has been a very bad month for the Vatican and especially for Pope Francis’ Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, from which Marie Collins, an abuse survivor, resigned on March 1. Collins had been appointed personally by Francis and became one of 17 commission members investigating the abuse scandal that has rocked the church and devastated and alienated Catholics throughout the world.

Her resignation was prompted by one Vatican office’s refusal to answer, individually, any abuse victim who had written to the Vatican—an action approved by the Pope. At least as important to Collins was the fact that a tribunal to “judge bishops accused of acting inappropriately on sexual abuse,” recommended by the commission and agreed to by the pope in 2015, never materialized.

Despite this, on 23 March 2017, Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the head of the Pontifical Commission, insisted the pope was “thoroughly committed to rooting out the scourge of sex abuse” and that “no other topic is is more important for the life of the church.” In fact, he went even further, insisting that if the Church is “not committed to child protection, efforts at evangelization have no effect,” and it will “lose the trust of our people and gain the opprobrium of the world.” In June 2016, Pope Francis signed a new universal law for the Church stating that “a bishop’s negligence in responding to clergy sexual abuse would lead to his removal from office.”


‘Linguistic resources’

On March 27th, another commission member, Jesuit Fr. Hans Zollner, told the Italian Catholic channel TV2000 that “Vatican officials need training before they can respond to survivors” since “they lack the psychological, theological and juridical background” for a task that requires “a complex set of competencies and professional abilities.”

Fr. Hans Zollner, SJ (Source: Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wGqKOU8sqOc)

Fr. Hans Zollner, SJ (Source: YouTube )

The word that stands out for me in his statement is “juridical,” it sent to me to my Funk and Wagnalls because I thought it suggested that letters from the Vatican expressing sorrow and condemning the abusers for their actions might indicate that the Vatican was finally and irrevocably “owning” the entire fiasco (or were afraid such responses might indicate that they were). The word is from the Latin (how appropriate) and means “of judicial proceedings” and/or “relating to the law.”

Zollner agreed that it was “a reasonable and human desire” for abuse victims to want some response to what had been inflicted upon them, but the desire clashed “with the reality of an office often limited in its human and linguistic resources.” What he did suggest in his speech at a meeting of the Pontifical Commission, was (no surprise here, Cardinals get your regalia ready) that a new Vatican office be established to train officials in the proper manner of writing such responses to victims.


‘Almost God-like’

Why they couldn’t have asked commissioner Marie Collins, an abuse survivor herself, what a survivor might hope for in a response from the Church that helped to hide the scandal for God knows how many years is beyond me. Her story of being abused by a chaplain when she was 13 years old, in hospital in Ireland and away from her family for weeks, is a sad and sordid tale of the devastating effect of such abuse.

As Collins told Mary Hynes of CBC’s Tapestry, in the Ireland of her childhood (late ’50s/early ’60s):

A priest was almost God-like. In a way we looked on a priest as God on earth: beyond reproach, deserving of absolute respect. You know, in most houses in Ireland at that time, even in houses with very few rooms, you’d have a little front parlour, which would be kept clean and sparkly…everything dusted and kept fresh, for the priest if he ever came to visit.

Collins said when she went into hospital as a child, her family was pleased to think the young chaplain on the hospital ward would look after her and when, instead, he sexually abused her, reporting it didn’t occur to her:

When I went in [to hospital] I was quite a happy, confident child. But when I came out I withdrew right into myself. And I was terrified anyone would find out what happened.

At 17 she suffered a mental breakdown, the first in a long series over the next 30 years. She suffered from depression, anxiety and agoraphobia. Although she married in her late 20s and had a son, Collins was unable to hold down a job and told Hynes she considered herself a “bad person who had done something really bad.”

It wasn’t until she was 47, and had been referred to a psychoanalyst, that she finally understood the priest had been a predator who had groomed her for the abuse. The doctor advised her to tell the Church about it, so Collins went to her local parish priest, whom she knew very well:

…but when I told him about it he wouldn’t let me give the priest’s name and he told me it was probably my fault and I could go away now, I was forgiven.

Her reaction was to guard her silence for another 10 years. Meanwhile, her abuser was monitoring 12 and 13-year-olds in the parish school, protected by the diocese until other accusers came forward. The priest was finally jailed in 1997.



Cardinal Sean O'Malley (By Pufui Pc Pifpef I (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Cardinal Sean O’Malley (Photo by Pufui Pc Pifpef I, own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

So is Cardinal Sean O’Malley correct in his assessment of the seriousness of the abuse scandal and the effects it has had and continues to have on the faithful? In a March editorial, the National Catholic Reporter stated:

A resistance to change that is planted deep within the all-male clerical culture is the largely unaddressed issue at the heart of the scandal and has been since the first major story about it appeared in these pages more than 30 [!] years ago.”

Although the editorial acknowledges that sexual abuse happens most often in “family settings among those whom children are taught to trust,” it suggests that when it happens within the Church, it is a “unique crime and a sin” for a number of reasons connected to the clerical culture:

First, that priestly perpetrators claim to be a class “apart from the rest of humanity” who stand “in persona Christi” as “anointed channels of God’s grace and forgiveness.”

Second, that they belong to an “exclusive culture with its archaic laws and hidden legal proceedings” and have also been treated deferentially “by law enforcement and law courts, as well as by ordinary Catholics.”

And third, because their clerical culture has looked first to the preservation of “their privileged status” with little care for the destruction they have wreaked on the “most vulnerable in the community.”

O’Malley soldiers on, though, and says he is “pledged to give voice to survivors in the commission’s work,” but it appears, according to Joshua McElwee that “someone in his group is working to stifle Collins’ voice.” McElwee says that someone “familiar with the situation” told the Catholic News Service on March 16 that the pope’s order to set up a tribunal to judge the bishops was not a “papal fiat” to establish the tribunal but a “green light to flesh out what procedures could uphold greater accountability.”

Another “Vatican source” told the National Catholic Register on March 22 that survivors who write to the Vatican should “receive a response from their local bishop, not Vatican offices,” and no doubt the bishop could very well be one of the many who hid the scandal for years. Hypocrisy is rampant it would seem.

So while the editors at NCR are claiming that Francis has referenced the scandal enough and that “now is the time for action,” once again he will be fighting the curia, some of the commission’s members and bishops who would dearly love to see the investigation die. Many of us live in hope that that survivors like Marie Collins won’t let that happen!

Featured image: View of St. Peter’s Square, St. Peter’s Basilica and Vatican Obelisk (Photo by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT, own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Dolores Campbell


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.



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