When Marie Collins first found the strength to tell her secret she was racked with trepidation. Living from day to day, leaving the house or talking to her next-door neighbour was intimidating enough, but telling an archbishop that a hospital chaplain had sexually abused her when she was 13 years old was almost unthinkable.
Next week, at the invitation of the Vatican, she will stand up in Rome and address some of the world’s most senior bishops, telling them the unwelcome truth that few wanted to hear 27 years before.
“I don’t feel nervous or intimidated,” she tells me just days before her address. “I feel more hope that something I say might help. No matter how much help you receive as a survivor that 13-year-old child is still inside somewhere and still comes up, that little voice saying: ‘You’re not really a good person. You’re worthless.’ That never really goes away. But I’ve had a lot of help to become the person I would have been had I not been abused.”
Marie continued to practise her Catholic faith long after she was abused. She married a Catholic and they brought up their son in the faith. He served as an altar boy at Mass. But it was not until she experienced the Church’s response to her anguish that she became disheartened and could not bring herself to continue practising. This is one of the things she is quietly determined to explain in Rome next week.
“I have been a Catholic all my life and when I went to the diocese and the archbishop it was with the absolute conviction that once they knew they had a dangerous man in their control they would want to protect other children,” she explains. “And I found it devastating that they would not do that.”
It was Marie’s doctor who first urged her to report the abuse for the sake of other children within the diocese, if nothing else. Marie had had close contact with psychiatrists as her life had been marked by anxiety, depression and agoraphobia.
But when she approached her local curate in 1985 he told her: “It was probably your fault so I don’t think I need to do anything about it.”
“He even went as far as to say that I was forgiven and I should go away and forget about it,” Marie recalls. “He refused to take the name of the offending priest and just finished the conversation at that. That totally destroyed me. I just fell apart.”
For the following 10 years Marie was often hospitalised due to severe depression sparked by her utter dismay at the curate’s response. She resolved that she would never speak about the abuse with anyone ever again.
But 10 years after her first attempt to speak out disturbing media coverage of a serial abuser in Ireland, Fr Brendan Smith, confronted Marie with the nagging question: was she the only one?
“I always thought that this man abused me because it was something about me. It occurred to me at that point that he may have abused other children. And of course from that thought came the other thought: he may still be abusing children. At that point it wasn’t a question of whether I should go and report him again or not. I just had to. I had no choice. I had to do something.”
But once again Marie was crushed by the response after she urged that the offending priest be removed from his current parish where he was in regular contact with schoolchildren.
“The archbishop told me that I couldn’t possibly ruin this priest’s good name and that it all happened a long time ago,” she says.
It then emerged that the diocese had already known for many years that the priest in question was an abuser. He had been removed from the hospital where he had abused Marie but he was still working in the archdiocese.
Dublin archdiocese’s handling of Marie’s case has made it difficult for her to face Sunday Mass and practise her faith in full. She explains that she couldn’t stomach moral instruction from a priest in a pulpit given the wounds she had received at the hands of the Catholic hierarchy.
“Men in power covered up for these perpetrators,” she says. “It’s like having a fox or a rabid dog and it has killed hens in a hen house. So you move it into the next field and it kills hens in that hen house. You’re the one in charge of it. It’s up to you to stop it.”
Marie hopes to tell her audience in Rome next week what she now tells me: “Being treated in the way that I was by the Church can destroy your Catholic faith and actually exacerbate all your problems. I mean, I was a practising Catholic up to that time that I reported to the diocese in 1995-1996. I now find it very, very difficult to practise my religion.
“I’d like to see the Church going back to the basics of what Christ said, and he did not teach that institutions are more important than little children.”
Marie is also determined to communicate to the conference that the psychological effects of child abuse are far-reaching and enduring.
“Child abuse destroys a person’s view of themselves,” she says. “You can’t just judge it by what’s physically done. It’s the psychological damage which is so dreadful.”
Marie describes how her mother, a devout Catholic living in a nursing home, was heartbroken when Marie finally told her about the abuse in anticipation of media coverage.
“It was heartbreaking to see her reaction because immediately she felt she hadn’t protected me,” she recalls. “She was quite devastated.”
The daily purgatory that Marie endured made simple sociable activities seem insurmountable.
“I couldn’t do the things with my son that I’d like to do. I had agoraphobia, I couldn’t take him out to play. I couldn’t take him on picnics. I really felt he was losing out in his life as a child. He didn’t have a mother who could do all the things that a mother should do.”
Yet Marie has not allowed self-pity or bitterness to hinder her constructive efforts to safeguard Catholic children in partnership with the Church. She has organised liturgies of reconciliation to cultivate spiritual healing for survivors of abuse. She has also written and spoken extensively about the effects of abuse.
Marie admits that her participation in the Vatican’s conference next week is controversial, given that some, including survivors of abuse, will regard it as simply a public relations exercise on behalf of the Church, rather than an expression of a genuine desire for change.
“I think this conference is a sign that things may be changing,” she says. “I hope things are changing and there is now going to be a new, more enlightened attitude to the whole abuse crisis, because we have had blame thrown out in every direction, from the secular society, to homosexuals, etc, etc. That’s sort of blame game is pointless. I’m hoping that this conference will at least improve things from now on – and it’s only a hope. And that’s why I am taking part. I’ve always lived on hope that they will learn and that things will be right for the future.”
The strongest test of Marie’s firm faith occurred when her abuser asked her to visit him in jail. By 1997, her tenacity had resulted in his conviction. Before he appealed against his sentence he asked to see Marie so that he could apologise. One can’t help but raise an eyebrow at the timing of the apology, but Marie talks about it without cynicism.
“If someone sits across a table from you and asks you to forgive them, if you’re Christian, it’s part of what we believe,” she says. “I
had to believe that he was sincerely sorry and looking for forgiveness. I would not withhold it from him.”
Marie has undoubtedly lost trust in the Catholic Church but her faith in God is firm.
“Even through all that time of struggling with the hierarchy my faith has carried me through. Before I speak in Rome I will be praying for the Holy Spirit to be with me and help me through it.”
She explains that one day she hopes she can return fully to her Catholic faith, “but in the meantime I’m definitely still holding on to my belief in God”.