Pope Francis' efforts to grapple with the clerical sexual abuse scandal has been dealt a major blow after a highly respected abuse survivor resigned from his commission into child protection.
Marie Collins’ Ash Wednesday announcement that she is stepping down from a papal safeguarding body set up by Francis calls into question the pope's handling of clerical sexual abuse.
The Irish abuse victim’s announcement comes days after a report that the Pope was softening sentences for some priests recommended for laicisation.
A statement from the commission said Mrs Collins had “cited her frustration at the lack of co-operation with the commission by other offices in the Roman Curia,” although she adds that she will continue to work with the body in an “educational role.”
Her departure means there are no longer any abuse survivors actively serving on the body set up by Pope Francis with the other survivor, Peter Saunders, on an indefinite leave of absence.
But she has now become disillusioned by the slow pace of change. In an article published by the National Catholic Reporter she talks about resistance from inside the Vatican to recommendations from the commission along with a lack of resources.
She vented her frustrations about about resistance to reform from inside the Roman Curia when I interviewed her last month. The problems, she said, were old attitudes and opposition to Pope Francis: this was a state of affairs Mrs Collins described as a “disgrace.”
She has stressed, however, that Francis does understand the problem of abuse and is serious when he talks about adopting a “zero tolerance” policy.
"What he [the Pope] has said is a true reflection of what he feels about abuse. But I do believe there are elements in the Vatican thinking in the old way and who are not on board. And that is very dispiriting in 2017,” she told me.
"He has learned a great deal. No one starts out fully understanding everything. He may not always get it right and I'm sure he’s made mistakes, but basically he has got the right attitude."
Mrs Collins was also uniquely able to act as a bridge between survivors and church authorities. Her voice carries weight. At 13, she was raped by the chaplain at a Catholic hospital in Dublin where she was a patient. She has talked about the terrible damage she suffered; how she felt the abuse was her fault, how she was weighed down with guilt and lost her confidence. At the same time Collins has been able to live with the pain and work with bishops and church leaders to ensure children are protected.
Some decisions from Francis concerning certain cases have been "hard to understand” Mrs Collins says but the Pope has been wiling to listen, and has adopted every proposal the commission has recommended.
One of these has been the need to hold bishops accountable for covering up abuse. Initially this was due to take place by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Later, however, the Pope announced this would be handled by other curial departments suggesting there was resistance from the CDF.
Sources in Rome say that there is a tribunal in the CDF that could be used to investigate bishops who cover up but no case has so far been brought to it. Meanwhile the other Vatican departments can apply another legal process - known as the administrative trial - to deal with such cases.
What all this shows is the difficulty the commission had in bedding down into the Church’s central administration. It is not technically a department of the Roman Curia and so other Vatican departments were not always sure how to relate to it or where the real authority lay.
It had been set up on the recommendation of the Pope’s advisory council of cardinals, the C9, and is led by one of its members Cardinal Sean O’Malley. He is the the Archbishop of Boston who took over following the exposure of a cover-up of sexual crimes against children by priests and has been Francis’ point man on abuse.
Today the Cardinal said: “We will certainly listen carefully to all that Marie wishes to share with us about her concerns and we will greatly miss her important contributions as a member of the commission.”
The problem facing the Pope is a perception that he is not able to take full control of the sex abuse crisis which has infected the Church worldwide.
Adopting a merciful approach to survivors has backfired after he softened a sentence against abusive Italian priest Mauro Inzoli, after powerful figures allegedly lobbied the Pope on Inzoli’s behalf.
Collins disagrees withe Pope’s decisions on this case and was also worried by Francis' appointment of Chilean Bishop Juan Barros despite claims Barros had covered up abuse.
But she points out that “none of his actions have put a perpetrator back into a position where children would be at risk.”
Critics say the Pope needs to show that he “gets it” when it comes to abuse and adopt a stronger procedures based approach to the matter rather than adopting a case-by-case strategy.
Francis has shown himself willing to try new ideas in all sorts of ways in what has been a “start-up” style papacy. Some things work, some don’t. In the case of the commission he needs to go back to the drawing board.