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Campaigner calls on Catholic Church to remove 'vagueness and ambiguity' from response to child abuse

A Protection of Minors meeting is due to take place in the Vatican later this month.

Marie Collins at a press conference following a panel event on safeguarding children and vulnerable adults at the World Meeting of Families in Dublin in August 2018.
Marie Collins at a press conference following a panel event on safeguarding children and vulnerable adults at the World Meeting of Families in Dublin in August 2018.
Image: Brian Lawless/PA Wire/PA Images

CAMPAIGNER AND ABUSE survivor Marie Collins has called on the Catholic Church to adopt a zero-tolerance policy to child abuse.

Collins has made a number of recommendations in a submission to the organisers of the Protection of Minors meeting, which is due to take place in the Vatican later this month.

The Dublin woman has been campaigning on behalf of abuse survivors for years. In 2017 she resigned from a special Vatican commission created by Pope Francis to tackle clerical abuse, citing lack of progress on vital issues.

In her submission, Collins said there is currently “no consistency across the global church as to how abuse of a minor is handled”, adding: “It is often dependent on the particular local bishop and his attitude or willingness to act.”

Collins is calling on the Catholic Church to agree on a clear definition of what constitutes sexual abuse of a minor and a clear definition of the term “zero tolerance”. She also wants Canon law in relation to the abuse of vulnerable adults to be reviewed, separating it from the abuse of minors.

Collins said universal safeguarding measures across the Catholic Church “need to be agreed and put in place” without delay.

In her submission, Collins notes: “No clear definition of what constitutes sexual abuse of a minor has been put in place by the Catholic Church to guide leaders in their handling of abuse.”

She said “the vagueness of the Canon law in regard to abuse” often leads to Canon law trials being “unable to bring in a guilty verdict in cases where most people would see clearly sexual abuse has occurred”.

‘Vagueness and ambiguity’ 

In terms of the Church adopting a zero-tolerance policy on child abuse, Collins notes that Pope Francis has “promised there will be zero tolerance across the Catholic Church for anyone who would perpetrate sexual abuse of a minor”.

The meaning of “zero tolerance” is taken by the laity to mean that any member of the clergy found to be guilty of abusing a minor will be removed from the clerical state. However those church leaders who give it any attention argue about what level of abuse is acceptable before zero tolerance is applied while others ignore it.

Collins believes Canon law should be updated to remove the “vagueness and ambiguity” in both areas.

“My view on the necessity for this has been informed through speaking with bishops from many countries. It has been clear from their comments that there are huge variations in their understanding of these terms,” she said.

Collins also states that the sexual abuse or exploitation of vulnerable adults should not be conflated with the abuse of minors.

“Vulnerability may be due to lack of mental faculties as per the current canon law. However it can more often be due to an imbalance of power between the victim and perpetrator, some adults can be vulnerable at certain times in their life while not permanently vulnerable.

“Completely separate processes for dealing with the issue of minors and that of vulnerable adults is necessary. There should be no confusion between the two forms of abuse.

“Methods to deal with cases involving vulnerable adults need to be developed independently of those currently in place to deal with the abuse of minors,” she said. 

Collins’ full submission can be read here.

‘Make sure no case is covered up’ 

The Protection of Minors meeting is due to be held in the Vatican from 21 to 24 February. Interim director of the Holy See Press Office, Alessandro Gisotti, said the meeting “has a concrete purpose“.

“The goal is that all of the Bishops clearly understand what they need to do to prevent and combat the worldwide problem of the sexual abuse of minors. Pope Francis knows that a global problem can only be resolved with a global response.”

Gisotti said in a statement that the Pope wants the event to be “an assembly of Pastors, not an academic conference”. 

It is fundamental for the Holy Father that when the Bishops who will come to Rome have returned to their countries and their dioceses that they understand the laws to be applied and that they take the necessary steps to prevent abuse, to care for the victims, and to make sure that no case is covered up or buried.

He noted there are “high expectations” of the event, describing it as “a stage along the painful journey that the Church has unceasingly and decisively undertaken for over fifteen years”. 

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Órla Ryan

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