A Voice For Abuse Survivors Within The Catholic Church
Each week, Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.
For decades Marie Collins has advocated on behalf of sex abuse victims and spoken out against the way the Catholic Church has handled the crisis.
Collins was selected by Pope Francis to sit on the new commission he set up to try to right past wrongs and to make recommendations for dealing with pedophile priests in the future.
Collins is one of four women on the new commission and the only member who is also herself a survivor of clergy sexual abuse. She told NPR's Rachel Martin about the abuse, how she overcame it and went on to help other victims.
When Collins was 13 years old she had an operation at a children's hospital. It was her first time from home and she was scared, she says. The chaplain of the hospital began coming by a lot, including in the evenings to read to her.
"He made me feel secure, and I suppose also, the way these men work, they make you feel special," she says.
The chaplain then arranged for the nurse that was supposed to be in the ward to leave, and that's when the abuse began.
"It started off as a game, and then it proceeded from there," she says.
Collins says the abuse affected her for the rest of her life. She says she went into the hospital a confident little girl who was sure of herself, and came out an entirely different person.
"I thought I was a bad person," she says. "As with most survivors of abuse, you blame yourself; you think it is something about you that's bad."
Collins says she spent the next few decades suffering from very severe depression, at one point not leaving her home for four years. She didn't speak about it until about 25 years later, when she spoke to a therapist about the abuse.
Collins was not her abuser's only victim, and he was eventually convicted and jailed. After her case went public, other survivors came forward and he was further convicted of abuse committed over three decades.
One of the positive aspects of the commission Collins was placed on, she says, is that there are no restrictions or mandates placed up the members. And though she is currently the only member on the commission that is a survivor of clergy sexual abuse, she says survivor input is going to play a role in the future.
"You can have all of the professional expertise, but I think survivors who have lived through — not just the abuse, but the attitudes of the church and the mishandling by the church — the more insight you have [is] better for the future," she says.
In the past, Collins says, she has called for more accountability for those who protect abusers and the implementation of strong child-protection measures. Now she can do that from within the church.
"I want to see change, I'm hopeful for change, and that's why I'm in the commission," she says.
Collins says she knows there are those that think this is simply public relations "window dressing" and that no survivor should be taking part. She says she understands that, but feels this is a unique opportunity for critics of the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.
"I still think it is very important for a survivor to take the opportunity to go in there and say all of those things from the inside."
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MARIE COLLINS: And shock, I think, was my immediate reaction and disbelief, amazement. I certainly had no expectation that I would ever be asked to do anything within the Vatican, particularly with my history of criticism with the church.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
That is the voice of Marie Collins. She's one of four women on the pope's new commission and the only member who is herself a survivor of clergy sexual abuse. For decades, she's advocated for sexual assault victims and spoken out against the way the Catholic Church has handled the crisis. Pope Francis selected Collins to sit on his advisory board, which he hopes will hope right past wrongs and make recommendations for dealing with abusive priests in the future.
Marie Collins is our Sunday conversation.
COLLINS: It's a long time ago now. I'm a gray-haired old lady at this point. But, yes, I was 13, and I was away from home for the first time in a children's hospital. I had a bone infection. I'd had an operation. I was really quite unwell.
In those days, parents weren't allowed to spend time with you in the hospital. You only had a visit of maybe an hour each day. But the Catholic priest chaplain of the hospital became very friendly. And he came to visit me, and I was quite fearful. As I said, it was my first time away from home. And he made me feel secure, and I suppose also, the way these men work, you know, they make you feel special.
And he started to come around in the evenings and just read to me because I'd had an operation. I couldn't use one arm. I couldn't hold a book. And he managed to organize that the nurse who was supposed be on the ward would leave for a certain length of time, and then he started to abuse me. It started off as a game, and then it proceeded from there. It affected me and the rest of my life, you know.
MARTIN: How long did it take you to tell someone?
COLLINS: Well, you know, I went into that hospital as a very confident little girl, sure of myself. I came out an entirely different individual, and I thought I was a bad person. As with most survivors of abuse, you blame yourself. You think it's something about you that's bad.
I turned into myself, and I spent the next 20 or 30 years really suffering with very severe depressions. I was in my own home for about four years with agoraphobia. I couldn't go outside my front door. And I did get married, and I have a lovely husband and son. But I didn't think to speak to anyone about it. But on talking to a psychiatrist, a doctor who was trying to help me 25 years after the abuse, I began to realize that it was something that had been done to me. That was the first time I spoke about it, 25 years after.
MARTIN: Wow. I read somewhere that at one point, another priest told you that you were to blame for what had happened. You had disclosed this to him.
COLLINS: Yeah. Well, unfortunately, it was at that point where I had just disclosed it for the first time to this doctor. And he told me I should go and tell somebody in the church that this man still might be a danger to children. So I arranged to see the curate in my parish, who was somebody I trusted. And I had never stopped being a practicing Catholic because I thought it was all my fault. It didn't in any way stop my practicing my religion.
So I went to my local curate, and when I told him about the abuse - I started to tell him. He didn't really let me to go to a lot of detail. He said, you probably tempted the poor man. And he said, you're forgiven. So that totally devastated me because it threw me right back into that pit, really, of self-guilt. So I left, and I didn't speak to another soul about it for 10 years. And unfortunately, my abuser went on abusing for those 10 years.
MARTIN: What happened to your abuser, Reverend Paul McGuinness?
COLLINS: Paul McGuinness, he had sent me photographs and Christmas cards and things after the abuse, not preferably respectable photographs. Unfortunately, he took abusive photographs as well.
So I had some proof of our contact, and he did admit the abuse. So eventually, the police force here were able to charge them. He was charged with indecent assault, and he was convicted and jailed. Since then, because my case went public, all the survivors have come forward. And he's been now convicted of abuse over three different decades.
MARTIN: Has he passed away since?
COLLINS: No, he's still alive. He's in his 80s, but his last conviction was only a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, he was seriously assaulting a little girl for the age of 10 to 14.
MARTIN: Has the pope given you any guidance for the commission, what your mandate is, scope, what you're supposed to come up with in terms of solutions?
COLLINS: Well, one of the good things about the commission actually is that the eight members have been left free. There has been no restrictions on what we might want to look at, what we want to work on changing, what we might want to recommend to the Holy Father. And we are responsible directly to the pope himself. Another positive is that, of the eight original members that are there at the moment, five are laypeople and four are woman, coming from different perspectives, child psychiatry, survivor - various perspectives.
MARTIN: But you are the only survivor of clergy sexual abuse?
COLLINS: I am at the moment, but as Cardinal O'Malley said at the press conference after our first meeting, there will be more survivor input in the future, which is very important. I think that he can have all the professional and expertise, but I think survivors who have lived through, not just the abuse, but the attitudes of the church and the mishandling by the church - the more insight you have into that, the better for the future.
MARTIN: As you say, this is a unique opportunity. As a vocal critic of the Catholic Church and its handling of the sexual abuse crisis, to be invited in, what will make this a successful experience for you? What would make you feel like you made the most of this chance?
COLLINS: We've got to see positive change. I mean, I obviously can't go into details of discussions that we've had 'cause we've already met. But, I mean, what I was calling for in the past was accountability, particularly of bishops, and strong child protection measures that were implementable and that there was, you know, sanctions for anybody in the church who didn't operate according to the policies. We've had a lot of words. We've had a lot of apologies. But at the other end of the scale, actions haven't always lived up to words. So that's what I want to see.
MARTIN: When you say positive change, what does that mean? You mean people haven't been held accountable and need to be. People need to lose their jobs.
COLLINS: Obviously, yes. I think, as a survivor, what I would've called for in the past was accountability. In other words, if a superior at any level in the church did not - protected an abuser in any way, then they should be some - sanctioned for the. Obviously, we've seen a lot of bishops who have been left in place when they've mishandled cases.
As I say, I can't go into great detail, but all I can say is that I want to see change, I'm hopeful for change, and that's why I'm in the commission. I know there are many, many survivors who think no survivor should take part in this, that it's just a PR exercise. It's just window dressing. Nothing is going to change. It's just going to be talking shop. And it'll go on for years, and nothing will happen. I understand all that.
There are others who are just very angry with the church and say they should change everything right now. They know what they need to do, and they should do it. I understand all that. But on the other hand, I still think it's very important for a survivor to take the opportunity to go in there and actually say all those things from the inside.
MARTIN: Marie Collins is an advocate for child sex abuse victims by the clergy. She's one of four women serving on the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, established by Pope Francis. She joined us from studios in Dublin. Thank you so much for talking with us, Miss Collins.
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