Dr. Collin-Vézina is the director of the McGill Centre for research on Children and Families. She is the only Canadian on an eight-member advisory board invited to Rome to work on a papal committee examining child abuse cases.

Church moving forward on sex abuse, but issues still to be resolved

By  Alan Hustak, Catholic Register Special
  • February 18, 2015

MONTREAL - The Roman Catholic Church is moving forward in the aftermath of the devastating child abuse crisis, yet a sense of helplessness around the issue still has to be resolved before the damage can be fully repaired, says a leading clinical psychologist and member of a papal committee examining child abuse.

“The taboo around sexuality in the Church still has to be addressed,” said Dr. Delphine Collin-Vézina. “There have been important changes in the way certain dioceses are dealing with sexual abuse.  But the Church is not advancing at a quick pace. But that is because it is a complex issue. Meaningful change takes time.”

The director of the McGill Centre for Research on Children and Families, Collin-Vézina is the only Canadian on an eight-member scientific advisory board invited to Rome to work on a papal committee examining child abuse cases.

The problem of sexual abuse, she says, is not exclusive to the Roman Catholic Church. Part of the problem is that abusers are hard to identify.

“Most of them are normal people, people of trust. You don’t know that they are dysfunctional predators hiding in the bushes. Many of them are otherwise great individuals.

“It is an international problem. It is a social issue that needs to be tackled from so many angles,” she told a mid-February talk at McGill University’s Newman Centre. Her address was entitled “Breaking the Silence About Child Sexual Abuse: How to Promote Safer Places for Our Children to Grow.”

Collin-Vézina said a reliable national survey of sexual abuse cases has not been conducted in Canada in 30 years. But based on limited studies done by child welfare bureaus in Ontario and Quebec, it is safe to assume that one of every 10 males and one of every five females has been abused by someone in a position of authority. That may be only the tip of the iceberg because of a reluctance of victims, especially males, to come forward. At the same time, statistics suggest three per cent of the clergy were offenders. She said the failure of the hierarchy to grasp the gravity of the situation, and its over-emphasis on the need to avoid scandal and circumvent the law, contributed to the crisis. On a positive note, she said the abuse of minors is much less likely to happen now because society is more aware of the dangers and sexuality as a whole is much more discussed than it was even a decade ago.

When the Pontifical Gregorian University took the initiative to deal with sex abuse in the Church in 2009, it partnered with Ulm University in Germany, which had already been working on a groundbreaking project aimed at preventing sex abuse. Collin-Vézina was invited to be on a committee.

“It is a heartbreaking topic to be working on,” she admits. “Every day I read about, and have to deal with, cases of sexual abuse. High profile cases come up every day, but what is not registered are the people who want to be heard, but are ashamed to come forward. Because I am not a Catholic it is easier on my end to advise the committee. I have no agenda. I am free to speak my mind and to be critical.”

The Diocese of London, she points out, was among the first in Canada to take preventative steps by developing its own safe environmental policy in 1989 and implementing a code of conduct for its priests. Under the protocol, priests are not to be alone with a child, are prohibited from taking youngsters and teenagers on vacations and are obliged to hear confessions in an open space that allows the priest and the penitent to be in full view of others. In addition, the bishop has been distanced from dealing directly with alleged abusers; each case is dealt with by an independent misconduct committee.

Earlier this month, Pope Francis again emphasized that there is “absolutely no place in ministry for those who abuse minors.” The Pope said “families need to know that the Church is making every effort to protect their children. They should also know that they have every right to turn to the Church with full confidence, for it is a safe and secure home.”

The committee has held its first meeting in Germany and will meet again in Rome later this year.

(Hustak is a freelance writer in Montreal.)

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.