Marie Collins has resigned from the Pope’s Commission for the Protection of Minors, and her explanation makes damning reading. While some commentators have been pessimistic, others take the view that this is by no means a major piece of news, and is not a sign of trouble for the Pope. John Allen goes so far as to think it may be a blessing in disguise. Austen Ivereigh insists that the resignation is not a sign that the Commission is not working.
We have been here before. Marie Collins is not the first abuse survivor to leave the Commission. Last year Peter Saunders left the Commission on “leave of absence”, and has been discouraged from returning. Some two years ago, John Allen himself pointed out:
It’s not clear if Francis fully grasped this at the time, but when he named survivors to that group, he was handing them significant control over his reputation. If Collins and Saunders were ever to walk out, saying they’d lost confidence or feeling that they’d been exploited for a PR exercise, it would have a vast media echo.
That judgment, from just under two years ago, is surely the right one. The credibility of the Commission depended on its ability to get things done; and the confidence that it would get things done rested largely on the fact that Peter Saunders and Marie Collins were among its members. Now Saunders and Collins have walked, and the reason in both cases is the same: the Commission was not bearing fruit. It was all talk, no action.
What exactly has Pope Francis done to move forward the child protection agenda in the last four years? He inherited a state of affairs that was at last moving in the right direction. The Church had shown that it was taking the matter seriously, as exemplified by the punishment of Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ. Maciel had been one of the most powerful men in the Church and was protected by many influential friends, clerical and lay. That made his fall hugely important. If Maciel could be brought down for his crimes, it meant that no offender was safe.
But what has happened since then?
We have had a much-trumpeted commission that has made several important announcements, but failed to deliver on, for example, its promised tribunal for bishops who protect child abusers. We have had the case of priests including Fr Mauro Inzoli, whose sentences, according to respectable reports, were commuted thanks to the intervention of the Pope himself. Juan Barros has been made Bishop of Osorno in Chile, despite the anger of protesters over questions about his past.
If this were not enough, there is the case of Cardinal Danneels, a trusted Papal adviser, who has been exposed as recommending that an abuse victim remain temporarily silent.
All this makes one ask: does Pope Francis “get” just what the child abuse crisis in the Catholic Church was and is about? Perhaps as an Argentine he has a different perspective. Marie Collins limits her criticism of the Pope to saying his reduction of sanctions against priests is “disappointing” and that he “does not appreciate how his actions of clemency undermine everything else he does in this area”. She believes “the Pope does at heart understand the horror of abuse”, and that the real problem is with unnamed forces in the Curia.
But the truth is that the Pope is responsible for what goes on in the Vatican. The creation of the Commission and the appointment of abuse survivors as members seemed like a breath of fresh air at the time. Now, Collins’ departure from the Commission represents a crumbling of the façade, laying bare a disappointing truth: under Pope Francis’ watch, the global crisis caused by child abuse and its cover-up is not being confronted with the vigour that it needs. As a result, working in the Catholic Church becomes harder for all its members at all levels.