Talk at the Symposium on the Sexual Abuse of Minors
By Marie Collins
Presented at the Toward Healing and Renewal Conference
Pontifical Gregorian University
February 6, 2012
I was a victim of clerical child sex abuse. I had just turned thirteen and was at my most vulnerable, a sick child in hospital, when a priest sexually abused me. Although it happened more than fifty years ago it is impossible to forget and I can never escape its effects.
As was common in children of those days I had no knowledge of sexual matters, this innocence added to my vulnerability. I took my Catholic religion very seriously and had just made my confirmation. I was sick, anxious and away from home and family for the first time. I felt more secure when the Catholic chaplain of the hospital befriended me, visited me and read to me in the evenings. Unfortunately these evening visits to my room were to change my life.
This Chaplain was only a couple of years out of the seminary but he was already a skilled child molester, I could not know this. I had learned that a priest was God’s representative on earth and so he automatically had my trust and respect. When he began to sexually interfere with me, pretending at first, he was being playful; I was shocked and resisted, telling him to stop. He did not stop. While assaulting me he would respond to my resistance by telling me “he was a priest” “he could do no wrong” He took photographs of the most private part of my body and told me I was “stupid” if I thought it was wrong. He had power over me. I felt sick, I felt everything he was doing was wrong, but I could not stop it; I did not call out, I did not tell anyone. I did not know how to tell anyone. I just prayed he would not do it again ………..but he did.
The fact that my abuser was a priest added to the great confusion in my mind. Those fingers that would abuse my body the night before were the next morning holding and offering me the sacred host. The hands that held the camera to photograph my exposed body, in the light of day were holding a prayer book when he came to hear my confession. My abusers’ assertion that he was a priest and could do no wrong rang true with me, I had been taught that priests were above the normal man. This added weight to my feelings of guilt and the conviction that what had happened was my fault; not his. When I left the hospital I was not the same child who had entered. I was no longer a confident, carefree and happy child. Now I was convinced I was a bad person and I needed to hide that from everyone.
I did not turn against my religion, I turned against myself.
The words this priest had used, to transfer his guilt to me, robbed me of any feeling of self-worth. I withdrew into myself, turned away from my family and my friends, and avoided contact with others. My teenage years were spent alone, keeping everyone at a distance in case they would find out what a bad, dirty person I was. This constant feeling of guilt and worthlessness led to deep depression and problems with anxiety which became serious enough to need medical treatment by the time I was seventeen. Long hospitalisations with depression followed and this left me unable to follow a career.
At twenty nine I met a wonderful man, married and had a son. But I still could not cope with life, the depression, severe anxiety and feelings of worthlessness continued. I developed agoraphobia which meant I was could not leave my house without suffering severe panic attacks. I was unable to give my son all the attention a mother should and could not fully enjoy his childhood. I felt I was a failure as a wife and mother. I felt that my husband and son would be much happier if I left them or died.
I was forty seven before I spoke of my abuse for the first time; this was to a doctor who was treating me. He advised me to warn the Church about this priest. I arranged a meeting with a curate in my parish. I was very nervous. It would be only the second time I had spoken to anyone about what had happened to me. This priest refused to take the name of my abuser and said he saw no need to report the chaplain. He told me what had happened was probably my fault. This response shattered me.
I had only begun to accept, through my doctor's help, that I had done nothing to cause my abuse. Now being told by my priest, that it was “probably my fault” caused all my old feelings of guilt and shame to re surface. I could not face talking of it again so stopped seeing my doctor. This curate’s response served to keep me silent for a further ten years, more years of hospital stays, medication and hopelessness. He later told the police that he did not take my abuser's name because that was what he had been taught in the seminary. 
Ten years on there was extensive coverage in our press of serial sexual abuse by a Catholic priest. For the first time I began to understand that the man who had abused me might have done it to others. Thinking it was something about me that caused it to happen I had never considered that my abuser might have harmed others. Now I understood more I knew I must try again to let people know what had happened, so that children might be protected. This time I decided to go to the top with the certainty of mind that, once his superiors knew that this priest was a possible danger to children, their safety would come first and every step would be taken to ensure that no more would be harmed.
I wrote to my Archbishop and then gave details of my abuse to his chancellor, a monsignor and canon lawyer. This began the two most difficult years of my life. The priest who had sexually assaulted me was protected by his superiors from prosecution. He was left for months in his parish ministry which included mentoring children preparing for confirmation – the safety of those children ignored by his superiors. All this went against the Irish Catholic Church’s guidelines on child protection of the time - they were ignored. It has since come to light that these guidelines were thrown into doubt by opinion from the Vatican that they might not conform to canon law . My Archbishop told me he did not have to follow them, despite the people being told they were being followed to the letter. I was treated as someone with an agenda against the Church, the police investigation was obstructed and the laity misled. I was distraught.
I could not believe leaders in my Church would think it morally right to leave children at risk. The accused priest had admitted his guilt to the diocese but during a meeting with my Archbishop I learned that his priority was the protection of the “good name” of my abuser. I asked him how he could leave a known abuser in a position of trust with children? Rather than answer the question he admonished me for referring to this priest as 'an abuser' insisting it was a long time ago so I could not call him that. The Archbishop considered my abuse “historical ” so felt it would be unfair to tarnish the priest’s “good name” now. I have heard this argument from others in leadership in the Catholic Church and always there is blindness to the current risk to children from these men. Why?
When I disclosed my abuse to the hospital authorities where it took place I received a very different response. They were concerned for my well-being, offering me counseling and care while they immediately reported to the police and co-operated with their investigation.
After a long struggle my abuser was brought to justice and jailed for his crimes against me. My case is an example of how so called “historical” reports must be treated just as seriously as current ones. My abuser was jailed again last year for repeated sexual assaults on another young girl. These assaults took place a quarter of a century after he abused me and while he was still a trusted priest in her parish. He threatened this victim that her Catholic family would be thrown out of the Church if she told anyone what he was doing to her. These men can abuse for their whole lifetime leaving behind them a trail of destroyed lives.
The mishandling of my case by the Church leadership led to a total collapse of my trust and respect in them and in my Church which until then had survived intact despite the actions of my abuser. What they had done was contrary to everything I held dear. I had believed justice and the centrality of moral law were embodied in my Catholic Church.
The final death of any respect that might have survived in me towards my religious leaders came after my abuser's conviction. I learned that the diocese had discovered, just months after my abuse, that this priest was abusing children in the hospital but did nothing about it except move him to a new parish. This was on his file when I made my report but despite knowing this they had still protected him.
After the trial the Archbishop issued a press statement to reassure the laity saying the “diocese had co-operated with the civil authorities” in my case. When pressed on this obvious lie  the diocesan representative admitted that they felt the statement was justified, as it did not say they had co-operated “fully”. How could I believe in anything my Church leaders said in the future knowing they were capable of this type of mental gymnastics? or known in the Church as “mental reservation”.
I lived a life for over thirty years where just getting from one day to another was a struggle. I felt these were wasted years, a wasted life. I had many treatments for my mental health problems, some of which were helpful but none solved my problems. The beginning of recovery for me was the day in court when my abuser took responsibility for his actions and admitted his guilt.
This admission had a profound effect on me. It led in time to my being able to forgive what he had done and no longer feel him as a presence in my life. I attended therapy for nearly two years and through this came to understand how this abuser had twisted my view of myself. This had come at a crucial time in my development. My feelings of guilt and a very poor self-image led me to turn away from those nearest to me and isolate myself. My deep-seated anxiety led to depression. Gaining insight into all these areas helped me to believe things could change. I could be in control of my life rather than have my past control me. I was able to leave the wasted years behind. I have not been hospitalized with any mental health issue since that time.
My one regret is that I can rarely bring myself to practice my Catholic religion. My faith in God has not been touched. I can forgive my abuser for his actions, he has admitted his guilt. But how do I regain my respect for the leadership of my Church? Apologising for the actions of the abusive priests is not enough. There must be acknowledgement and accountability for the harm and destruction that has been done to the life of victims and their families by the often deliberate cover up and mishandling of cases by their superiors. Before I or other victims can find real peace and healing.
Trying to save the institution from scandal has caused the greatest of all scandals and has perpetuated the harm of the abuse and destroyed the faith of many victims.
I feel the best of my life began fifteen years ago when my abuser was brought to justice. During those years I have worked with my diocese and the wider Catholic Church in Ireland to improve their child protection policies. I have used those years to become involved in working for justice for survivors and spoken out for better understanding of child abuse and for the improved protection of children. My life is no longer a wasteland. I feel it has meaning and worth.
1. Para 13.12 Commission of Investigation - Dublin Archdiocese Report
2. Para 7.13/7.14 Commission of Investigation - Dublin Archdiocese Report
3. A number of years later (13th April 2002) the archbishop issued a statement apologising for the lack of co-operation with the police