An Irish woman who was abused by a priest in her youth told an international symposium on clerical abuse that Pope Benedict is a model of how to listen to victims.
“Listening to victims is one of the most important things, and it was something that was maybe not done enough, and the Pope is giving an example as to how it should be done,” Marie Collins said Feb. 7.
Collins, 65, was abused while a patient in a Dublin children’s hospital. She told journalists at the “Towards Healing and Renewal” symposium at the Pontifical Gregorian University that she was particularly impressed by the Pope’s numerous meetings with victims during his apostolic visits abroad.
“The bishops should take their example from him and from his lead and listen more to victims and what they have to say,” she said.
Since being elected in 2005, Pope Benedict has met with victims of abuse during his pastoral visits to the United States, England, Germany, Australia and Malta. In the latter case, he wept while listening to what he heard from victims.
The four-day symposium has gathered representatives from 110 bishops’ conferences and more than 30 religious orders at the Jesuit-run Roman university. Its aim is to share best practices from around the world amongst the bishops and religious superiors present.
This morning the delegates heard Collins give a joint presentation with Baroness Sheila Hollins on “Healing a wound at the Heart of the Church and Society.” The baroness, who is a professor of psychiatry at St. George’s medical school at the University of London, also described Pope Benedict’s meetings with victims as “incredibly important.”
“I felt he was modeling to bishops in all of those places, ‘this is how you sit and listen to victims,’ and I think that was very, very important. That he had the ability to be able to sit and listen to what people were saying. I have huge respect for him for doing that,” she said.
The Vatican has given those bishops’ conferences and religious orders that do not have abuse guidelines in place until May 2012 to do so. They must then submit them to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Rome for approval, revision or rejection.
“There’s absolutely no doubt that this symposium will contribute very, very positively to the various writings of those guidelines, because it’s a very valuable resource for those taking part,” said Collins.
In recent decades, Marie Collins has become a well-known campaigner in Ireland for the protection of children and justice for survivors of clerical sexual abuse. She said she found it “difficult” to tell her story today, but she persevered because it’s important for bishops and religious superiors “hear a victim’s experience” as part of the symposium.
“I felt for that reason that I should do it, and I’m very glad I did. And the response was very good,” she said.
She explained how one African bishop told them that he had “not really given the issue a great deal of importance” but that “after hearing us both speak he had changed his mind and felt that this was something he had to give a lot more attention to. So I think it was important that what we both said was heard.”
Baroness Hollins had explained to delegates how mental health problems are “very common” among victims of abuse, including “depression, anxiety, eating disorders or suicidal thoughts.” She also said she believes that listening to victims is key to helping them to heal their psychological wounds.
“Listening isn’t just something that happens once,” she remarked, “it is quite hard to listen in a way which helps a victim, a survivor feel like they’ve been heard. And so that listening has to keep on, particularly for somebody where the abuse happened a long time ago” and who has not be able to tell their story for many years.