Child protection commission seeks new input from victims

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VATICAN CITY — Following the resignation of a prominent member and abuse survivor, a pontifical commission charged with addressing issues related to clergy sex abuse vowed to continue to seek input from victims and survivors.

The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors said the resignation of Marie Collins was a "central topic" of its March 24-26 plenary assembly, and it "expressed strong support for her continuing work" to promote healing for abuse victims and ensuring best practices for prevention.

"Commission members have unanimously agreed to find new ways to ensure its work is shaped and informed with and by victims/survivors. Several ideas that have been successfully implemented elsewhere are being carefully considered for recommendation to the Holy Father," the commission said in a statement published by the Vatican on March 26.

Among the main concerns addressed by the commission was outreach out to victims, an issue first raised by Collins shortly after she resigned from her position. In an editorial published online March 1 by National Catholic Reporter, Collins said an unnamed dicastery not only refused to respond to letters from victims, it also refused to cooperate on the commission's safeguarding guidelines.

In its statement, the commission emphasized Pope Francis' letter to the presidents of the bishops' conferences and superiors of institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life, in which he called for their close and complete cooperation with the Commission for the Protection of Minors.

"The work I have entrusted to them includes providing assistance to you and your conferences through an exchange of best practices and through programs of education, training and developing adequate responses to sexual abuse," the pope wrote Feb. 2, 2015.

Commission members spoke again of their willingness to work together with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith communicating a "guidelines template" to episcopal conferences and religious congregations, both directly and through the commission website, the statement said.

Never letting a letter or email languish unanswered was such a key "best practice" of showing care and concern for victims of sexual abuse by clergy and religious that Collins stepped down from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors over the issue.

When it comes to whether an office should respond to a victim, "There's an amazing ability to take whatever is simple" and make it sound "as if it's highly complex," said Declan Murphy, who was abused as an adolescent by two Christian Brothers in Dublin in the 1960s. Murphy, who was in South Korea, spoke to Catholic News Service via Skype in mid-March.

It's a "basic courtesy" to respond, even if it is just a brief acknowledgment of receiving the letter with a general time frame of intended follow-up. "That's the way most people work when they value and respect a person," he said.

After 38 years of keeping his abuse hidden from everyone and "coping on my own," Murphy said he was back to relying on his own resilience, with the support of family, to make sure his voice was heard with repeated calls and arranging meetings with Church leaders after he came forward in 2006.

The most hurtful response he got, he said, was telling a high-level Church representative about being raped for three years by two religious priests and "he looked at me in the eye and said, 'I can't help you,'" in "a cold and callous" way.

That kind of dismissal only made sense, Murphy said, for someone who looks at the issue from a legal or organizational point of view, in which different people are responsible for their own separate jurisdictions — and the problem gets volleyed back and forth over ecclesial lines. In every situation, he said, the thing that hurt most "was the fundamental lack of respect for me as a human being whose childhood was taken away."

Murphy said he had three objectives in all of his efforts to reach out to the Church: "Somebody to listen to my story; I wanted them to believe me and say 'I'm sorry'; and I wanted my costs back," meaning medical and legal costs incurred since 2006, the year his health broke down and he revealed the past abuse.

The best responses he received, he said, were when someone said he was going to do something and then actually did it. Another time, the same person "sent a Christmas card. It was a small gesture, but it showed a human side."

Church leaders and personnel should not be driven by legal concerns, fears of litigation or self-interest, he said, but by a pastoral compassion that asks, "What can we do to help you? Tell us what you need." 

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