Father Hans Zollner: Church's Work to Stop Sexual Abuse Must Be Longterm Commitment

Says Panel Demonstrates Pope’s Pledge to Promoting Child Safety

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The Commission on the Protection of Minors is a “huge sign” of Pope Francis’ commitment to promote safety of minors in the Church around the world.

This is according to Father Hans Zollner, head of the Institute of Psychology at the Gregorian University in Rome, director of the Centre for the Protection of Minors and member of the recently launched Vatican Commission.

Plans for the establishment of the commission were announced back in December 2013, and the first eight members of the Commission were reported last week by the Holy See. Including among them are Marie Collins, an Irish abuse survivor; Cardinal Sean O’Malley, archbishop of Boston and “G8” member; and Baroness Sheila Hollins, a specialist in mental health.

According to a statement released by Vatican spokeesman Father Federico Lombardi, the task of this «initial group» of members will include: «participating in the deliberations concerning the Commission’s final structure; describing the scope of its responsibilities; and developing the names of additional candidates, especially from other continents and countries, who can offer service to the Commission.»

The statement went on to say that «the Commission will take a multi-pronged approach to promoting youth protection, including: education regarding the exploitation of children; discipline of offenders; civil and canonical duties and responsibilities; and the development of best practices as they have emerged in society at large.»

In an interview with ZENIT, Fr. Zollner highlighted the objectives of this new Commission:

ZENIT: What are the primary aims of this new commission?

Zollner: In the official announcement, there are some areas that are indicated as possible areas of interest and concern for this commission, but it is also mentioned that there have to be appointed new members from other continents and countries. So, my understanding is that this is an initial group. It has to bring up new names, and it has to develop an idea of exactly what this commission is about. I would say there is certainly also the expectation that there is something in the field of spirituality, pastoral approaches, and most of all, prevention work.

If you read [the statement] carefully, you see it’s all about how this Commission will not take legal responsibilities away from other dicasteries. This is not a dicastery. As far as I understand it until now, this will not be a juridical commission or a legislative commission. This will be a sort of board that can assist the Holy See and local churches and religious communities … to better find out what has to be done, where the points of negligence and of denial are, and where we have to do more.

ZENIT: What do you see as your role in this commission?

Zollner: Our role is to give advice to the Holy Father. This is the language you would use in Vatican dicasteries. With the presence of Cardinal Sean O’Malley, certainly it’s given that he, as a member of the so-called G8 group, will bring this to the attention of the Holy Father. So, we will advise the Holy Father through Cardinal O’Malley, and probably through contact with all the other dicasteries that are involved in all this. Because, you see that it’s not only something that concerns the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It concerns the Secretariat of State, bishops, clergy, education, propaganda fidei.

This initial group has to bring to the attention of Cardinal O’Malley and of the Holy Father those issues where those people who are involved find it more urgent to intervene. But it certainly won’t have any intervention power in itself.

ZENIT: With regard to education: who is the target? Will it be priests? Dicasteries? Dioceses? The public?

Zollner: I believe we will continue what has already started to some extent, what we do here at the center for child protection of the Gregorian University. That means that we propose a new learning program for pastoral workers of all kinds in parishes. There are many programs in the US, in Ireland, especially in the Anglophone Western world, including Australia, where you have lots of programs where priests have yearly ongoing formation courses [that are] obligatory.

I would see much interest – especially from our side as a university, and with this center for child protection – that we promote ongoing formation of seminarians, religious, priests, catechists, teachers in Catholic schools, professors and faculty and employees in universities, in all kinds of kindergarten, hospitals, hospices: in whatever the Catholic Church runs around the world. There is a growing awareness that we need to build sensitivity with regard to this issue, and that we transmit the necessary means and measures to those who work with children, with adolescents, and with vulnerable people.

ZENIT: With regard to one of the points made in Fr. Lombardi’s statement, namely the discipline of offenders, how can the Vatican logistically, and legally, discipline offenders?

Zollner: Under Benedict XVI, the Vatican has made it very clear that the Church in the respective countries in the US, in England, in France, in Italy, has to comply with the state law. There is no exception for this. We have to really follow what the civil law is and what the penal law is in the respective state in which we are.

Together with civil law, the Church takes her own measures against offenders through our canon law. So, the discipline of offenders from the side of canon law of the Church norms in regard to this means that, [in addition] to what the civil court has sanctioned with this offender, the Church has to take her own measures. It’s an additional punishment that concerns, normally, restrictions in the ministry of a priest or a deacon. The most severe punishment that the Church knows is, for a priest, the dismissal from the state of priesthood. This has happened, as you know. There was a major headline in the last two months that, in the last two years, [Benedict XVI] defrocked 400 priests because they had been convicted within the Church authority of sexual abuse of minors. These canonical penalties are in addition to the legal implications in the state where they have been convicted, and many of them have gone to jail.

ZENIT: Since there are certain policies within the Vatican and the Church, why establish this commission in addition to what is already in place?

Zollner: One thing is, as I said, this commission will not have, as far as I can see, any kind of juridical responsibility in competence. That is already settled. I think it’s much more. Something that many people have to understand within the Church and outside the Church is that this is Pope Francis’ clear sign that he’s going forward in a proactive attitude and stance. It’s not only about the past: it’s mostly about the future. For instance, in my own country in Germany, we had a huge discussion when the scandals broke out violently four years ago, but nowadays hardly anyone talks about child sexual abuse and consequences, neither in the Church, nor outside. So, you have to have a long-standing approach. You have to have patience and determination to go forward, even if the public opinion, and the public interest, has diminished.

I see it as a huge sign that the Holy Father is really set to promote safety of children in the Church around the globe. This is a real priority for the Church, but it is not a priority in many countries of the world where children suffer from child labor, or they become enrolled into the military as children, where you have slavery, where you have all kinds of physical and emotional neglect, and so forth.

I see this as a sign much beyond any canonical or legal implications, much beyond also in terms of awareness building, in terms of empowerment of children and those who work with children

I would see it in a much broader horizon than just reconfirming what the Church has already established as its norms in dealing with

ZENIT: What should the public understand about this commission?

Zollner: It’s important to notice that, with the inclusion of a female victim of sexual assault by a priest, the Holy Father has also made it clear that we can’t talk about this, about the past and prevention in the future, without listening to victims. This is a clear sign of the unwavering importance that is given to putting victims first.

The other thing is that it’s important to notice that it’s not all about legal things. Sometimes, in some discussions, I notice that it’s all concentrated on, for example, whether there’s a duty to denounce, an obligation to report to civil authorities or not. We deal with much broader issues, in which the respective legal implications in one country may differ from another, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t do much in all countries to build up an awareness that children have to find a safe place in this world, and in the Church.

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Ann Schneible

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