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Pope’s Anti-Abuse Summit Needs to Hear From ‘Designated Survivors’

By Charles Collins

Irish abuse victim Marie Collins, the lone clerical abuse survivor nominated by Pope Francis to sit on the new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, looks at Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley during their first briefing at the Holy See press office at the Vatican May 3. (CNS photo/Alessandro Bianchi, Reuters) (May 5, 2014)

(Crux) — When over 180 bishops’ conference presidents and other Church leaders descend on Rome next month for a global summit on clerical sexual abuse, they will hear from some of the victims themselves. Yet a Jan. 16 Vatican communique making this announcement did not mention the names of those who would be giving the presentations.

Likewise, when the organizing committee for the Feb. 21-24 summit was named in November, the statement mentioned that “some victims of abuse by members of the clergy” would be involved in the preparations. When Crux asked who they would be, we were told they might be named at a later date – so far, they haven’t been.

When Irish abuse survivor Marie Collins resigned from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in 2017 – following English survivor Peter Saunders’ exit the previous year – the commission’s president, Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, told Crux: “Perhaps having survivors who were known as survivors was part of the reason they got so much attention.”

The Vatican seems have taken this concern to heart: When new commission members were announced last year, the statement said “the members of the commission include both victims of clerical sexual abuse and parents of victims.” But the announcement also said that none of them wished to be identified as such, with the Vatican explaining it was “defending each person’s right to choose whether or not to disclose their experiences of abuse publicly.”

When La Civilta Cattolica revealed in February 2018 that Pope Francis told Jesuits in Peru that he “regularly” met with abuse survivors on Fridays in his residence, the Vatican spokesman said “the meetings are held with the utmost privacy, in respect of the victims and their suffering.”

In fact, none of the participants of these meetings have ever spoken about it (Crux has independently confirmed that such meetings have taken place.)

It’s important to note that many survivors of sexual abuse don’t want to publicize the fact, and just because someone has chosen not to take up an advocacy role doesn’t mean their voices shouldn’t be heard by the leaders of the Church.

But there was a reason Saunders and Collins, longtime advocates for the victims of clerical sexual abuse, were appointed to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, and it went beyond the ability to relate their personal experiences to members of the Vatican hierarchy – they were in a unique position to hold the Church to account.

During their time on the commission, both survivors were vocal about what they thought needed to be done, both at the commission and within the wider Vatican. And, as O’Malley put it, they got attention.

Most observers said that was the problem.

Vatican officials complained that the survivors on the commission didn’t keep to its remit, which is to develop safeguarding policies. The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith handles individual cases of abuse, and the Congregation for Bishops oversees the bishops in the Church – the commission has no jurisdiction on those matters.

But that just highlighted this other consequence of having known survivors on the commission – they saw themselves having an advocacy role within the Vatican, even if it extended beyond the limited competency of the child protection body.

Saunders said the Vatican doesn’t want ‘angry survivors’: “It wants compliant ones who won’t rock the boat.”

It’s hard to disagree with him.

When Saunders and Collins were appointed to their posts, they made it clear there was a time limit on their compliance – if there wasn’t significant progress in two or three years, they weren’t going to hang around. Neither lasted the three-year mandate of the commission.

Rather than answer their concerns, the Vatican has instead given up on having a “designated survivor” role.

This is not for lack of candidates. There are plenty of vocal survivors – both individuals and members of organizations, such as the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) – who would willingly take a leading role in advising the Vatican on how to tackle clerical sexual abuse.

Few of them are likely to be “compliant,” however, and rather than risk the public embarrassment of having even more sex abuse victims rock the boat, the policy seems to be to announce that abuse victims are involved, but making sure they are anonymous.

As we head into the most important meeting on the clerical sexual abuse crisis in the history of the Church, this has left a void in the Vatican’s anti-abuse efforts.

Collins was also able to explain what the commission was doing, the obstacles it was facing, and the challenges in the future with an insider’s knowledge, even if she found it exasperating. Even Saunders’ more confrontational tone at least gave the impression the Vatican realized the seriousness of the task.Most importantly, they were able to be a voice for other survivors, not only within the deliberations of the commission, but also to the world, where a non-anonymous abuse survivor is a visible sign of the Church’s efforts to safeguard children.

It is the person other people- victims, law enforcement figures, journalists – can turn to and ask: “Are they serious this time?”

In this situation, a survivor without a name is a survivor without a voice. And the Church will need that voice in February.

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