Survivors' Dilemma in the Pontifical Commission

By Eileen Mathy

Like many, I felt hopeful with the Vatican’s announcement last June, of the formation of a tribunal to try bishops accused of abuse cover ups. Even more satisfying was the suggestion that two survivors serve on the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors which recommended
the tribunal. They were Peter Saunders of Great Britain and Marie Collins of Ireland. To date, this tribunal has yet to be established.

To complicate matters, Peter Saunders was asked to take a leave of absence from the Commission in order to determine whether or not he is willing to work within the mission of the Commission (more info here). Mr. Saunders is a strong advocate for social change within the Church and has been outspoken in his criticism of individuals such as Cardinal George Pell. Some on the Commission felt that Mr. Saunders’s impassioned stances interfered with what can be tedious policy and procedural development. Others sensed his frustration with how the Church appears to make token gestures towards change, while implementation and accountability become bogged down in bureaucratic resistance.

Marie Collins, the other survivor serving on the Commission, provided this perspective in a recent editorial. “If a member cannot commit to work on policy development–which undoubtedly is laborious, tedious and slow–while the other members are deeply committed to it, an impasse is reached.” She continued, “I have every confidence in the Commission and its members. I do not have the same confidence in those whose task it is to work with us within the Vatican and implement our proposals when approved by the Pope. I feel strongly that anyone criticizing the Commission is choosing the wrong target. There are many of good will in the Curia. Unfortunately there are still those at the top level who worry more about their own fiefdoms and the threat of change than they do about the work the Commission is trying to undertake to protect children” (source).

The apparent dispositions of Collins and Saunders present an interesting contrast. Those of us who have struggled with recovery from abuse understand the intensity of emotions that can consume us. We are also at times stigmatized by our triggered reactions: blinding rage, deep grief and despair. This can be another form of blaming the victim: sodomize a child, create a system of protection for perpetrators, settle cases with payment schedules that depend on the type of touch, and then label a survivor as unfit for reform work when he becomes angered by bureaucratic brick walls.

It is also true that our psychological constitutions and vulnerabilities going into episodes of abuse result in differing degrees of damage. I heard a very honest statement recently by someone who works on allegations of abuse: it is sometimes hard to tell if a person is psychologically damaged and thus reports having been abused, or if a person is psychologically damaged due to the abuse. Coupled with the very real phenomena of false memory syndrome, which is a condition sometimes created through poor psychotherapy and work around repressed memory, significant barriers to good mental health can be raised. Even Pope Francis stated that he is weary of false accusations towards clergy (source). While psychological pain from any cause is a reason for compassion and pastoral care, it can pose practical problems for the church trying to advance an institutional response.

For Mr. Saunders, I have great empathy and respect. I recognize, however, that his impassioned pleas were seen as a hindrance to the work of the Commission. I believe we may have witnessed what can develop when we as survivors are not in the kind of emotional space required for a particular task. It is a reminder to be aware of our triggers and our capacity to become emotionally flooded or reactive–and to understand how, fairly or not, others receive our behaviors.

Social change takes a toll on all warriors called to the battlefront. We owe it to ourselves, first, to remain healthy and, second, to know when we are or are not a good fit for the task at hand. At times, even if only for a season, we need to pass the baton on to others in order to progress in the movement towards change.

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