Accountability is key to the success of new Vatican body

The new safeguarding body will face challenges

The appointment of Marie Collins by Pope Francis to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors is an important step in ensuring that the voices of victims are heard in the Church’s ongoing work on child safeguarding.

There can be no doubt that the Church in Ireland and many other western countries now has robust policies and procedures in place to ensure that allegations of abuse are handled properly. The protection of children and young people has taken on paramount importance. But there is need for constant vigilance.

Some priests rightly feel that they are vulnerable to false allegations. And there have been high-profile false allegations levelled at priests and religious in Ireland and elsewhere with consequent damage to their good names. The painful truth, however, is that the vast majority of allegations of abuse have been true. There is no escaping this dreadful fact.

The work of child safeguarding in the Church is ongoing. There will never be a day when we can complacently say that it is a thing of the past. Yes, we can say with confidence that the robust policies and procedures – if followed correctly – ensure that the Church now responds in a timely and appropriate fashion to allegation if and when they arise. But there is always the danger of slippage, the danger that Church people might slip back into old mind-sets or old patterns of behaviour.

Fr Tony Flannery’s (later clarified) recent description of abuse as a “mistake” was a timely reminder of the old ways of thinking that exacerbated the abuse crisis where the paramount need for children to be protected was set aside in favour of the defence of the accused priest or a warped sense of mercy.

The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors will face many challenges. One of the key tasks will be to translate the heightened awareness of child safeguarding that is evident in countries like Ireland to other parts of the world. In many parts of the developing world, for example, talk of child abuse is taboo in the wider society.


When Pope Benedict XVI ordered every bishops’ conference in the world in 2012 to draw up guidelines to handle abuse many didn’t. The commission will have to address this to ensure that the lessons that have been learnt in the Church in the western world can be translated elsewhere.

Accountability will be key to the success of the commission, and there may be a need to change the Church’s law to make bishops and religious superiors more accountable when they fail in their duty. It is not acceptable that when there are set standards, people do not follow the set standards.

Marie Collins has already expressed her view that the commssion’s priority must be “a strong worldwide child protection policy which would include sanctions for any member of the Church in a position of authority who ignored these rules”.

Accountability must also move beyond the vital issue of child safeguarding. Bishops and those in authority within the Church need to become more accountable to their people for the decision they

make and for how they lead and govern the Church.