Survivor who quit papal committee on abuse tells her story

Marie Collins couldn't function for decades after she was abused by a priest at age 13. She later became an advocate for victims and Pope Francis invited her to join a commission to stop pedophilia in the Catholic Church. Collins then resigned in frustration. This is her story.
Marie Collins was paralyzed by trauma for most of her life after being abused by a priest as a child. After finally speaking out decades later, she joined a papal committee on ending abuse in the Church—only to later resign in protest. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)

This segment originally aired on March 12, 2017. 

When 13-year-old Marie Collins went to the hospital for an operation, it meant being separated from her family for the first time in her life.

Collins, who grew up in Ireland, would have to stay in hospital for several weeks. At that time, parents were only allowed one-hour visits. Her mother was pleased to know there was a young chaplain on the ward who promised to keep his eye on Marie during her stay.

But Marie wasn't safe: the priest sexually abused her. 

"I told him I didn't want him to touch me," Collins said. "But he told me he was a priest and he couldn't do anything wrong. You know, for a child of the '50s, I believed him."

Collins would keep her abuse secret for decades. It wasn't until the 1990s that she began telling her story publicly.

She became an advocate for victims and was invited by Pope Francis to sit on a committee dedicated to addressing pedophilia within the Catholic Church. Collins worked with the commission for three years. But on March 1, 2017, frustrated by the Vatican's resistance to change, Collins resigned.

She tells her story in a feature interview with Tapestry host Mary Hynes. 

Marie Collins talks during a news conference in Rome, February 7, 2012. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)

Decades lost

When she got home from the hospital, Collins was a changed person.

The naturally gregarious girl became withdrawn and stopped playing with her brother. She had a mental breakdown at age 17, the first of many over the next 30 years; at times she required hospitalization for serious depression, anxiety and agoraphobia.

Collins married and had a son, but she was never able to hold down a job and mental illness forced her to miss out on many important moments with her young family.

"People say, 'Why do victims keep quiet for so long, and why is it years later?' And, 'Maybe they are only coming forward looking for money or something,'" Collins told Hynes.

"But what I think people don't realize is the psychological damage that that sort of abuse does to you. My view of myself changed totally. I looked at myself from that moment on as a bad person who had done something really bad. I was absolutely consumed in guilt and far from wanting to tell anybody. I didn't want anybody to know."

Speaking out and resistance from the Catholic Church

Collins carried the secret of her abuse with her until age 47, when she finally shared her story for the first time with a doctor, who helped her understand that she had been groomed by a dangerous predator. 

The doctor also recommended that she reveal her abuse to the Church, in case the priest was still hurting others.

"So I went to the priest at my parish who I knew very well ... but when I told him about it, he wouldn't let me give him the priest's name and he told me it was probably my fault. And I could go away now, I was forgiven," Collins said. 

"I had only just begun to grasp from this doctor that this was not my fault, that I'd been abused, but the words of this priest just threw me back — right back into this pit of guilt. And I just fell apart emotionally and I didn't go back to the doctor and I stayed silent for another 10 years."

Ten years later, in the 1990s, reports began to emerge of pedophile priests around the world. It was those stories that helped give Collins the strength she needed to fight back.

The Church ... wouldn't have covered up for them if they were stealing parish funds. They covered up for them if they were raping young children. How could men in leadership have done that?- Marie Collins

Marie Collins at a 2014 press conference at the Vatican. (Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images)

The fight to put a pedophile priest behind bars

When she went back to the Catholic Church to name her abuser, Collins discovered that many victims had come forward about this same priest in the 30 years since her abuse — but nothing had ever been done.

"He was mentoring the 12 and 13-year-olds in the local school, yet the diocese would not take him out of his parish. They did everything to protect him," Collins said. "They wouldn't co-operate with the police when they began to investigate."

When Collins asked the archbishop if he was going to allow the priest, who had admitted to abusing her, to face her in court, Collins was not prepared for his response.

"I said, 'Is that morally right?' And he said, 'It has nothing to do with morality, it's my legal advice,'" Collins said. "I had gone to my archdiocese thinking that they would be as horrified as I was, and want to stop this man and keep children safe."

Being rebuffed by the Archbishop helped motivate Collins to become an advocate for victims. 

"It wasn't bravery or courage. I was just so angry and so determined that my life had been ruined, and I'd lost so many years, I did not want to see others have the same happen to them. I was determined I was going to do something about it."

That priest was convicted for his crimes against Collins and other children, and was jailed in 1997.

Collins became a household name in Ireland for her efforts to protect children. She created the Marie Collins Foundation which helps children who have been abused via the Internet and other mobile technologies.

Joining — and resigning from — the Pontifical Council for the Protection of Minors

In 2013, Pope Francis personally selected Collins to sit on the Pontifical Council for the Protection of Minors. There, she helped create new procedures for the Church to properly deal with and prevent further abuse.

Pope Francis has approved all the recommendations made so far, but the Curia, the administrative arm of the Catholic Church, has resisted putting them into action.

On March 1, 2017, Marie Collins resigned in frustration at the Church's resistance to change.

"I felt I couldn't remain and retain my integrity," she said.

"Somebody said to me once, 'Don't work with the Vatican if you want to retain your faith.' And I think some of that is very true. The men that are difficult, they live in a bubble — they don't see the world the way an ordinary person in the street does."

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