For centuries, the Vatican saw itself as an independent empire unaccountable to any civil or secular authorities, with its own jails, police force, schools and universities, even its own system of laws and regulations known as canon law.

In 1974, the Vatican imposed “The Pontifical Secret”, which made any allegation or investigation of sexual abuse against a cleric, a church secret. Any bishop or clergy that defied this decree, and went to the local authorities, could be excommunicated.

Then in the early 2000s, the Vatican required all its documents related to clerical sex abuse to be transferred to its archives. Which meant that when it denied requests from the recent Australian royal commission for access to some of these documents, the Vatican claimed diplomatic immunity. In 2002, one of the Vatican’s most senior canon lawyers, Cardinal Julián Herranz Casado, criticised Western countries, including Australia, for attempting to override canon law by allowing reporting of alleged abuse to civil authorities and requiring them to hand over relevant documents. He said that church law “provides all the trial and punishment tools” necessary to deliver justice and protect the community.

All those layers of official obfuscation finally began to peel away this year when the Vatican moved to make it a requirement for bishops to notify the civil authorities of cases of clerical sexual abuse and complaints — but only in countries where those laws exist. Countries in the developing world without such laws still rely on the church to do the right thing.

From 2014 to 2017, one extraordinary woman found herself inside this ancient, bureaucratic institution, trying to reform the Vatican’s responses to clerical abuse and cover-up. Her name is Marie Collins.

Marie Collins

When Inq met this grey-haired Irishwoman in Dublin in April, it was hard to believe she has taken on the most powerful clerics in Ireland and the Vatican, not only from outside as a survivor trying to reform the church, but from the inside. She was one of the first survivors appointed to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

Marie Collins was abused by a hospital chaplain as a young child, leading to nine admissions to psychiatric hospitals with depression and agoraphobia. It left her scarred and traumatised: “I hadn’t been able to hold down a career. It had affected my whole life.” She became the voice of survivors in Ireland and was instrumental in the creation of the Murphy Report, an inquiry into clerical sexual abuse years before Australia’s own royal commission on the topic.

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Her role in the Vatican’s painful reckoning began when Pope Benedict XVI decided to hold his first summit on child sex abuse under the title “Towards Healing and Renewal” in 2012. It was a four-day event attended by bishops from all around the world where Collins spoke directly to the clergy about the consequences of clerical sexual abuse.

Two years later Collins received a call from Father Bob Oliver, who belonged to a powerful organisation inside the Vatican known as the CDF — the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — to invite her to become part of the “Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors”, a new commission the Vatican had recently announced. He was the Promoter of Justice at the time.

The CDF is one of nine congregations in the Roman Curia, the body responsible for Catholic doctrine, which has its origins at the time of the Roman Inquisition. According to the Vatican website, the congregation holds “absolute jurisdiction in all matters pertaining to offences concerning the faith — heresy, schism, apostasy, divination, witchcraft, magic… ”. Its motto is “to promote and safeguard the faith”.

In reality the CDF has ultimate authority over priests and clergy, whether they are laicized, defrocked or moved from parish to parish, thereby “administering, confirming and entrenching a system of privilege of clergy that not only protected clergy sexual abusers from going to jail, but that led to further sex attacks on children,” according to canon law expert Kieran Tapsell.

Collins knew she would need to understand the CDF if she was to convince the Pope to change canon law. She wanted him to make it compulsory to inform police of any alleged child sex abuse and to bring bishops who covered it up to justice.

One day, Oliver called to tell her “the Holy Father would like you to be on this commission”.

“Well, I’d like to think about it. Who else is going to be on it? How independent is it going to be?” Marie asked.

He told her “it would report directly to the Pope, it would be completely independent of the Vatican departments and that all the people on it were independent people, etc.” She said she would think about it, but Oliver told her “oh no, no, no, you can’t do that,” because “we’re announcing it in the morning”.

Pope Francis

This was the first red flag for Collins that perhaps the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors hadn’t been well thought out, or was mainly designed to be a public relations exercise. Despite these doubts, she said yes.

When she attended her first meeting inside the Vatican, with Pope Francis now installed, she stayed inside the walls in a place called Santa Marta — “basically a hotel with a couple of hundred rooms and it’s within the grounds of Vatican City,” she explained. “Pope Francis decided he would live there, in one of the hotel rooms. There’s a communal dining room and anyone attending conferences and things within the Vatican, would be able to stay there. Everyone eats together in the communal dining rooms, including bishops visiting the Vatican.” She was surprised to see Pope Francis eating his meals in the communal dining room and often stopping to talk to people, trying to make himself accessible.

Six of the original eight members of the Pontifical Commission. (Left to right: Professor Hanna Suchocka, Dr Catherine Bonnet, Professor Claudio Papale, Marie Collins, Pope Francis, Baroness Sheila Hollins, Cardinal Sean O’Malley).

The first meeting of the commission, she said, was disorganised. There were no preparations, no paper or pens or bottles of water. “The first thing I asked is, ‘where’s our minute taker?’ And I was told by the Father Oliver, ‘there’s nobody in the Vatican available to take minutes’.”

As the meetings continued for another 18 months, Collins realised its decisions seemed to be going nowhere. She said that while there were some really good people on the commission, decisions made at one meeting would be forgotten by the next, and because there were no minutes it “went around in circles”. Collins felt they had been left to discuss and discuss until they eventually came upon the “right” decision in line with curia attitudes.

The central idea Collins and the rest of the commission worked on in those meetings was the concept of an “accountability tribunal” that would set in place structures to hold church leaders accountable for their actions.

In June 2015, the Vatican announced with much fanfare that the Pope had delegated the CDF the authority to “judge bishops with regard to crimes of the abuse of office when connected to the abuse of minors”. The Pope promised the finance and the personnel to run it.

“Six months later, we came together for our commission meeting and nothing had been done,” Collins recalled. “So what had happened? We were told it was being studied,” she said. “I said to Cardinal O’Malley, who was the chair of the meeting, ‘that’s ridiculous. We as a commission put this recommendation to the Pope. He approved it. He announced it and it went to the CDF. I am now asking what has happened to it?’.”

Collins said she was told by a lay person on the CDF that the tribunal concept was being blocked internally by powerful people. A year later, Pope Francis issued an “edict” that the oversight of bishops would be managed by four Vatican departments, which included two experts who made their recommendations directly to the only person who can declare a bishop guilty — the Pope.

Collins met with Pope Francis last August. What, she asked the pontiff, was happening about accountability? Collins says the pope insisted his methods were working and that he was holding bishops accountable. After Collins challenged this assertion, she says the pope was adamant that he was removing bishops. And she said to the pope: “No you’re not. You’re allowing them to resign and walk away. It’s the old thing of the church saving face. That’s not proper sanction. If someone has protected a perpetrator it must be known they have, it must be seen that they’re being sanctioned, it must be seen that they’re being removed. They shouldn’t be allowed to just walk away into the sunset with their reputation intact.”

Marie Collins meets Pope Francis in 2014.

Collins’ entire meeting with the Pope was in Spanish, using a translator. But, she said, after stating her frank views about clerical accountability, “he looked straight at me and he said in English ‘You know, you are right.’ And I thought, ‘great, I’ve got through to him.’” But she learned otherwise. “On his plane back to Rome that August, just after my meeting, I don’t know how my name came up, but he told the press on the plane, ‘Marie Collins, she’s fixated on accountability’.”

Collins resigned from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in February 2017. She says she has no problem being “fixated” on accountability. She just wants to see a fair, open process applied to everyone in the church accused of child abuse, from cardinals down to parish priests. “Don’t go promising us things,” she said. “We don’t believe them anymore.”

Last month, Pope Francis announced a raft of changes to canon law that would hold bishops accountable for committing or covering up sexual abuse. His 19-article papal decree Vos Estis Lux Mundi (You Are The Light of the World) requires every diocese across the world to set up reporting systems that also involve lay people in the investigations, prevents local church leaders from demanding secrecy from victims and others who report abuse, and outlaws the destruction of evidence. And for the first time, it requires clerics to report abuse to civil authorities like police, if the relevant laws already exist in that country.

It’s the latest attempt to respond to a global scandal that has ravaged the church’s reputation by an all-powerful Vatican, a body that Collins, after three years of close observation inside its inner sanctums, describes as “toxic … dysfunctional … un-Christian … immoral” — an organisation all about “politics, power, prestige, arrogance”.

But Collins remains an optimist. The Vatican will be forced to change, she says, because “law enforcement is now more aggressive at investigating the church”. Every time there’s another high-profile sex abuse incident “the more and more the church is going to realize they’re no longer invulnerable and untouchable”. The future management of policing child abuse inside the Catholic Church, she now believes, is “no longer in their hands”. Once, she thought, they might change from the inside, now she says “sadly, I was wrong.”