The Conscience Interview with Marie Collins
Marie Collins was only 13 years old when she was admitted to a children’s hospital in Ireland and sexually assaulted by the facility’s Catholic chaplain. Marie’s mother had been pleased with the young priest’s care and concern during her daughter’s long, lonely recovery from surgery. Neither yet realized the sinister nature of his attentiveness: prep work for sexual assault. Her abuser used his position as a means of coercion, assuring her that what he was doing to her could not be wrong because, as a priest, he knew what was best, and that God would be angry if she told anyone.
For nearly 30 years, Marie kept the painful story to herself. This once “happy and confident child” was now afflicted with shame and guilt, effecting dire changes in her relationship to herself, her family and her church. For the next three decades, she suffered severe depression and anxiety.
Years later, when she sought recourse, first from her local parish, the archbishop asked her not to tell him the name of the abusing priest and told her she was “forgiven” for whatever she may have done to cause him to assault her. “It is impossible to describe the devastating effect this response had on me emotionally,” she later said. It would be another decade before she reached out again for healing and accountability. When she did, she found many more survivors in need of assistance and support from an apathetic institution seemingly devoid of compassion.
But where the hierarchy was remiss, she grew relentless. She became a driving force behind investigations that verified accusations, vindicated survivors and exposed cover-ups and corruption. As a powerful voice for abuse survivors around the world, Collins was selected by Pope Francis to serve on his Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in 2014 to study the clergy sexual abuse scandal. She was one of two survivors asked to join the panel as experts, given their own experience. They were promised that the Commission would be independent and heard by the highest levels of Vatican authority, and that the investigation would follow the facts wherever they led. None of this happened, and Collins publicly resigned from the Commission in protest in 2017, citing its lack of urgency, cultural resistance and, most significantly, “the reluctance of some members of the Vatican Curia to implement the recommendations of the Commission despite their approval by the pope.”
Conscience spoke with Marie Collins as she kicked off her six-city speaking tour of the United States, challenging the institutional church—at the parish, diocese, national and international levels—to deal honestly and forthrightly with the human toll of the clergy sexual abuse crisis and put an end to obfuscation and attacks aimed at those seeking justice.
Conscience: How did your experience of abuse affect your life’s trajectory?
Marie Collins: As a child, I was a very confident and happy child.
I think a lot of people misunderstand what this kind of abuse does. They try to judge what the effect was by what was physically done to you, and that’s not really the case. Really, it was what he said to me that had more effect, because it changed the whole picture I had of myself. I felt that I was not the same as other people, that there was something about me that was bad that I needed to hide from other people. I suppose I lived in fear after the abuse—because he took photographs—I feared that they could get to my parents, my school friends. As a teenager, I was developing a sense of myself, my own identity. Instead of developing as I should have done, I developed a completely erroneous view of myself. That affected everything, including my relationships with other people, my relationship with the world. Because I had no self-worth and no confidence; I was constantly full of self-doubt. And that, of course, translated into severe anxiety and depression.
When I was in my 20s, I relied a lot on medication; I did drink a little, but not too much, thankfully. But I relied on more than my prescribed amounts of tranquilizers just to get through. I suppose, you don’t realize at the time what is happening to you, because it seems you’re just accepting that is you, and you’re not a great person. I worked for a couple of years, I had a career, but the psychological problems and problems with depressions and anxiety, I couldn’t hold down a proper job.
Which I feel is a big loss in my life, because I might have done something bigger with my life, but I never got the opportunity to do it. I did get married and have a son, but there again, I’m sure I would have had more children. I would have liked to have had more of a family, to have two or three at least, but I could barely manage to care for my son, and I couldn’t possibly take on more children. So that’s simply how my life was—not the life it should have been—if I had not crossed paths with this man.
Before the abuse, I was good academically, in school. That, of course, fell away after. My mum’s family were a big Catholic family—she had five brothers and four sisters, so there was 10 in the family—a very Irish Catholic family. My father was non-Catholic, which was a difficulty for my mum’s family in those days.
It was interesting. I became very defensive of the Catholic church, because my father was somewhat negative towards Catholicism. He would ask me to justify lots of things about the Catholic church, and I would defend it. So, I never took my Catholicism for granted, because it was something I was fighting to hold on to, even within my own home.
The abuse by a priest had absolutely no effect on that, though. I think that was because, in my mind, it was all about me, all my fault, and nothing to do with my abuser or his position as a priest.
Conscience: After the abuse, as you came to find a way to cope with it—as I think you’ve said, to lock it away—your relationship with the church remained?
Marie Collins: My relationship with the church remained exactly the same. In fact, this sounds probably a little off-book to others, but, in the Catholic church, there are what’s called reserved sins, I think. They’re so serious, you have to go to a bishop to confess. I went a few months after my abuse; I went to a confession box where there was a bishop. When I say I never told anybody until much later in life, the truth is I actually went to confession to confess the abuse. He gave me one Hail Mary as my penance. It did absolutely nothing for me, obviously. But that was how seriously I saw it. As a child, you know, you went to confession, you felt good, you know, all polished up. But for this, no.
Conscience: Did you still have your discussions with your father about the church?
Marie Collins: I did, that went on. I was every bit as defensive, and I studied everything very hard. It was the one thing I did: study. We had our religion class, and I usually came out top of the class, so to be as knowledgeable about it as possible. I believed everything about the church was right, and I didn’t question what they said, and none of that changed.
I believed I had done something terrible; I had done something awful; I felt enormous guilt. I didn’t feel angry with my abuser, because he had twisted the way I saw it, as these men do. It was that manipulation of my mind that did the most damage to my subsequent life.
My real vision for the church—which is an extreme one—would be to see it completely return to its roots and be a humble church, and one that does away with all the bishops’ palaces, and all the robes and all the ancillary things that it’s wrapped up in. I would like the church to go back to the basic church it was, that Christ showed originally.
Conscience: Before you were willing to go public, were there people in your life who influenced or inspired you? Or anyone you studied perhaps, within the church, like saints or theologians?
Marie Collins: Irish Catholics have a great belief in all the saints; therefore, there was a whole slew of saints I would have admired. Perhaps admired is the wrong word, but there were people I would have seen as truly good, as a great influence. But there was no one in particular. In many ways, from the time of the abuse, I thought inwardly, rather than outward so much. I just wrapped myself in a little ball and ignored the world around me. And nothing would have influenced me in any way; nothing could get through without me falling apart. I spent a lot of energy into appearing normal, and that took an enormous amount of energy. And I think many, many survivors do that. It’s just a question of putting up this façade, this mask. It’s what so much energy goes into.
Conscience: And once you decided to go public?
Marie Collins: During that time, there was a young priest—Father James Norman was his name. He really accompanied me through the whole of the two years when I was trying to bring my abuser to justice at the diocese. He was just always there for me, and he was the one who came with me to the meeting with the archbishop, where the archbishop later claimed he had not said what he said. Father James had come along to support me; he wasn’t there as part of the administration.
He came to support me. He didn’t want me to go on my own. These days, we take it for granted that if a survivor is making a report, we’ve got to help them prepare in advance and make sure they have support with them. I mean, before the meeting with the archbishop, I went in and made a report to the diocese totally on my own, which was very difficult. Imagine, I’m sitting in front of a chancellor who’s wearing the full black regalia and the collar, and there I am all by myself. I’m an absolute emotional mess, and I was trying–he wanted to know a lot about the abuse in great detail.
That was the only time that happened. But this young priest, Father James, he supported me right throughout after that. He came to that meeting with the archbishop. When the diocese called me a liar for repeating some of the things the archbishop had said to me in private, this young priest came to my defense and at a great deal of expense to himself. He said publicly, “[T]hat’s not true. Marie Collins is telling the truth. I was there.” And he stayed on at the diocese for many years, but he has now left the priesthood, and he has become a professor at one of our universities. He has become a very strong leader in antibullying work. I often wonder, but I never ask, if that has anything to do with how he was treated by the diocese, after he came out to defend me.
He certainly gave me something to hang on to during those years. That’s why I say there are good people in the church, but they have to be very, very strong to actually retain their own integrity when they see things happening around them that shouldn’t, or people being treated how they shouldn’t. And it’s a lot to expect sometimes of people. We’re all human. Sometimes it’s easier to go with the flow.
Conscience: I know through all of this, you’ve said a number of times, that when people say how brave you are that you are not brave. But what made it possible for you to stand up and be as you are?
Marie Collins: I do disagree with people who say I’m courageous or brave, because I don’t feel that way at all. I couldn’t have lived with myself if I’d stayed silent. And I think not speaking was something that went out when I saw that what was happening behind the closed doors of the church was so different than what they were claiming was happening. And in my mind, I felt I could not stay silent.
That’s the way I’ve been all along. I think, in many ways, the church drove me to continue, to be persistent. Because by trying to slap you down and trying to destroy you—and they did try to destroy me—made me more determined not to let them do it. So that’s why I don’t think it was courageous.
It was my gut reaction to being dismissed and being treated as an unimportant little person who’d better go away and not bother this big institution. Particularly as a woman, I was often dismissed as irrelevant because I was only a woman, and only a layperson, and therefore, I should know my place. Because I’ve recovered what I should have been, through therapy, I think, I’m much stronger now than I was years ago. Now that I’ve come through all that, and I’m the person I should have been. I have strong, independent views, and I’ve now got a feeling that I have a right to my views, that I have a right to stand up for myself, to stand up for others.
The other thing that always drove me on was that I met so many survivors who just could not go public, or were still at the point where it was too painful to speak themselves. And I had the opportunity to become that voice, and it would have been wrong not to take that opportunity. And I can so understand where they were at. So from that point of view, I don’t think its courage; I don’t think its bravery. I think its dogged determination not to be silent.
In the beginning, I used to feel really anxious, because I felt I was one individual speaking out against a very powerful institution. And they made sure I knew that. I had a lot of times when I would question myself—if I was doing the right thing—because I was angering Catholics as well.
And I got some fierce stuff through the post from people. I remember one person sending me a letter saying, “[Y]ou’ve got your pound of flesh, now shut up.” I got sent rosary beads—people were praying for me because they knew I was going to hell, all this sort of stuff. This is not comfortable. This is not the stuff you want in your life. And eventually, I was sent something I had to go to the police with, because I was worried about my family. So I’m not saying it was bravery to keep going, but I wasn’t going to let them stop me either. It’s not just the church, you know—you have to be able to do what you think is right. And that’s the only way I’ve ever operated. And that’s why sometimes I come in for criticism. I went through anger and bitterness, but I was helped through that by professionals. I’ve never come out and presented myself as an angry or bitter person, motivated by revenge or something, because people can dismiss you if you are like that. So I’ve always tried to be reasonable. And sometimes, that doesn’t go down too well, because people want you to be more angry.
So I’ve always just tried to do it my way, and been on a sort of independent course. I mean, lots of organizations have asked me to associate myself with them, but I don’t like to. I like to not be looking over my shoulder at what someone else will think or want me to say. I like to be able to say what I want to say myself, and I hope that’s not egotistical. I take responsibility for what I say and what I do. If I make a mistake, I make a mistake. If I don’t know something, then I say I don’t know it. And I don’t have all the answers—I may not have any of the answers. But I just keep going, because I think it’s the right thing to do and that’s why I’ve worked within the church.
Conscience: Where do you find hope? What would you like to see? What needs to happen next?
Marie Collins: My real vision for the church—which is an extreme one—would be to see it completely return to its roots and be a humble church, and one that does away with all the bishops’ palaces, and all the robes and all the ancillary things that it’s wrapped up in. I would like the church to go back to the basic church it was, that Christ showed originally. And for everyone to be involved and to bring itself back to basics. They’ve developed over the years their canon laws and the traditions, and theology is twisted to suit what they want it to suit. I don’t think any of that is necessary. I think we should have a simple church, which follows on from what Christ brought in the way of the good news. I believe, I suppose, in the Holy Spirit. That is where I would pray more—and I’m not a great prayer, but I just think the church has become an overblown edifice. It’s so wrapped up in itself as an institution, it has completely lost sight of what we see in a basic parish. A pastor, a priest who is looking after the people, and the people who are part of it.
The people are the church, but they don’t get the opportunity to be influencing how things go. And I would love to see a church that, as I say, was a humble church. It’s become an arrogant church. I’m a bit nebulous, I know, but just to see a humble church—in many ways, I’d like to see it brought back to its roots. And if that means root and branch changes, that’s where we’ve got to go.
Conscience: We’ve heard you say that clericalism is part of the problem—not just for the church itself, but the arrogance and superiority of and the idea that these men have been allowed to see themselves as separate from the laity.
Marie Collins: I think it’s true that in these times, clericalism is really—it’s been there for decades, centuries even. Yet we as a laity have become far more aware of it. We have seen the arrogance, the attitude of entitlement from men at the top of the church. It’s not only at the top—you see it at much lower levels, in your own priest.
In a parish, you can get a priest who won’t brook any argument, his way or the highway. That’s not how it should be. It’s been helped along the way sometimes by the laity themselves putting these men up on pedestals. That has to stop, too. We have to see them as—they are men of the church, and they obviously need to be treated with respect, the offices they hold—but on the other hand, they are human beings like ourselves, they are not gods.
They would like us to think that they are superior, and that they know better, that they have an inside track on everything from God to how things should and shouldn’t be done. And that just gives them this feeling of being invulnerable, to be able to do as they like, and treat people however they like. And in this crisis, we have seen how people have been treated by these men. But it happens in so many other areas of the church. It just hasn’t been as obvious as it has with the abuse crisis. The attitudinal problems—the attitude of “I’m a bishop, I’m a priest, I’m a cardinal, and therefore, I know better than anybody else and I have a right to dictate to you”—it’s there in so many other areas, but it has become visible now through the abuse crisis, and through the corruption being revealed. And clericalism is part of these young men going into their seminaries and coming out feeling that they are somehow superior to the people they’re ministering to. So that has to be tackled.
Conscience: And do you think the laity is the answer?
Marie Collins: If Catholics—people who believe in the Catholic religion—still want to be part of the church, they have to change it. They have to see that this clericalism is rooted out. Because their only alternative is to walk away—which many people have done. But if someone really wants to remain Catholic, wants to remain within their church, they need to remember it’s their church. These men don’t own it. They need to take ownership.