A founding member of the Holy See’s child protection commission has echoed criticism of its leadership, questioned the wisdom of placing the body within the Vatican’s doctrine office and called some of the commission’s plans “unrealistic”.
Baroness Hollins, among the first raft of individuals appointed to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, is an expert in child psychiatry and psychotherapy and is a former President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. She has worked closely with abuse victims and spent several years advising the Church on child protection.
Delivering the Catholic Union’s Craigmyle Lecture on Monday, 28 November in London, Lady Hollins pointed to clericalism cited comments made to The Tablet by Sr Jane Bertelsen, another former member of the commission. Sr Jane, the Congregational Leader of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood, said that “a collaborative, synodal style of working…was not evident in my last few months on the commission”.
Lady Hollins described this as “a direct and critical comment on the current leadership” while pointing to the need to tackle clericalism and that power in the Church still resides within the clerical, hierarchical system.
As part of Pope Francis’ reform of the Roman Curia, the pontifical commission has been placed under the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has responsibility for prosecuting and processing cases of priests accused of sexual abuse.
But Lady Hollins said that during her time on the commission, attempts to work with the dicastery “seemed to be blocked at every turn”, adding that “there was a lack of transparency, and their approach was uni-disciplinary unlike that of the PCPM.”
She said: “It’s anomalous to put a safeguarding commission into the department that deals with allegations against priests given that its brief is to prevent abuse and to address the care and healing of victims/survivors. The Dicastery for Family and laity seems much more in tune with the overall goals of the Commission.”
Lady Hollins repeated concerns about this move by Marie Collins, another former commission member, who told The Tablet that abuse must be tackled as a cultural and systemic problem, not simply as a disciplinary matter. Last month, the commission and the dicastery had yet to agree on how they will work together.
With an eruption of high-profile abuse cases coming to public attention, survivors, former members and Church sources have asked in recent months whether the commission is heading in the right direction. Along with the lack of a synodal approach, a question mark has been raised over the decision by the commission’s leadership to enter a partnership with the Italian bishops’ conference, whereby the Italian Church will fund and exchange information and skills with safeguarding centres in the Global South. Although the Italian Church has announced a study of internal records on clerical child sex abuse covering 2000-2020, it has resisted a deep and wide national investigation into how abuse was handled.
Fr Andrew Small, who has been secretary of the commission since July 2021, defended the Italian bishops' agreement telling The Tablet it was an “important initiative” and is “to be welcomed by all”.
Fr Small has estimated that between 70 and 80 out of the 114 bishops’ conferences worldwide have not established proper systems that would enable alleged victims to report incidents of abuse by priests or church workers and that in the past, the commission has not had “a lot of success” in raising money for its work. He says that funding could come from Missio Invest, a social impact fund, in helping to implement the reporting systems. Fr Small established Missio Invest as a separate entity in his previous role as national director of the Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States. He is still closely involved with the operation alongside his work with the PCPM.
But Mrs Collins has questioned whether the commission is still working on structures to ensure best practices for safeguarding or whether it is focussed on fundraising for initiatives.
Earlier this year, the Pope asked the commission to compile an annual report “on the Church’s initiatives for the protection of minors and vulnerable adults” which would “furnish a reliable account on what is presently being done and what needs to change, so that the competent authorities can act”.
Fr Small has said the first report was unlikely to be ready until 2024. He says the plan is to “summarise reports” of bishops from around the world who come to Rome for five-yearly visits and to look at what the Church is doing in specific areas around the world. The report would also look at what is happening in the Roman Curia.
Lady Hollins pointed out: “Rather unrealistically, the PCPM…says it will publish an annual report of progress made by every Bishops conference - all 114 of them.”
She insisted that “listening to victim survivors matters more than anything” when it comes to tackling abuse and improving safeguarding, and she praised Francis’ leadership when it came to tackling sexual abuse.
“The Church – we as members of the Church – need priests and prophets who are leading us towards the truth. Pope Francis is just such a leader and inspires hope for the future of the priesthood,” she said.
The commission for the protection of minors was set up in 2014, and its president is Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, a credible and respected figure with a track record of tackling abuse cases and accompanying victims and survivors. The commission’s role is to advise the Pope on safeguarding measures, help victims and help local bishops’ conferences to establish effective safeguarding and reporting mechanisms.