When she was 13 years old in 1960, Marie Collins underwent treatment for a bone infection in a Dublin hospital. In the privacy of a ward cubicle, she was raped by the hospital chaplain, Father Paul McGennis. She did not report the priest until 1995, some 35 years later. When she went public, she says, she received only “lies and deceit” from the archdiocese of Dublin.
In 1996, the then archbishop of Dublin, Desmond Connell, refused to turn over McGennis’s file (detailing his known offences) to the police. The archbishop apologised for this in 2002.
McGennis was sent to jail for multiple acts of abuse in 1997.
Today, Marie Collins is one of four lay women appointed by Pope Francis to an eight-member Vatican commission for the protection of children. The appointments have astonished the Catholic world for they place the women involved in positions of authority usually reserved for Cardinals and high-ranking clerics, demonstrating a dramatic alteration in papal regard for women and their scope for participation in Church governance.
But how deep, and how lasting? After the reforming Second Vatican Council of the mid 1960s, religious women united to improve their status, some even calling for a women’s priesthood. Successive popes outlawed even discussion of ordination for women.
John Paul II made it a matter of infallibility that women could never be priests. Even as feminist theology flourished in universities throughout the world, the hierarchies continued to promote an ideal of Catholic womanhood as the embodied virtues of the Virgin Mary - chastity and obedience.
Francis appears set to break that ancient relegation of women. At the beginning of his papacy last year, he shocked Catholic traditionalists when he went down on his knees to wash and kiss the feet of two women in a Holy Week ceremony.
One of them was a Muslim. More recently, he appointed 71-year-old Margaret Archer to head the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.
The international body founded by John Paul II in 1994, meets occasionally in the Vatican to offer advice on justice and peace issues. But the appointment of four women to protect children goes far beyond symbolic gestures and academic dialogue.
Known officially as the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, it is a high level Vatican body, reporting directly to the Pope and intended to deliver major policy.
The women commissioners, from Poland, France, Britain and Ireland, clearly embody leadership qualities, specialist knowledge and life experience that no celibate male prelate could bring to the job. Tina Beattie, Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Roehampton in London, says: “They are first class. Their credentials are impeccable.”
They will look into the crucial issue of the relationship between the Church and civil authorities, such as the police, in the reporting of abusers. Unavoidable, too, will be criteria for priestly recruitment, seminary training, and the pressures of celibate life.
The women will bring a critical eye, moreover, to the culture of clericalism and its entitlements. All four have experience and expertise in dealing with child abuse. Marie Collins, now 67 and head of an abuse survivors charity, the Marie Collins Foundation, based in Dublin, has openly called for criminal charges to be brought against bishops who have covered up wrong-doing, yet have so-far escaped investigation. This could mean indicting hundreds of bishops now in retirement.
Women Come to Power in the Vatican