Fr. Zollner: Pope's Meeting With Abuse Victims Was Not 'PR Stunt'

Church Will Never Stop Working to Protect Children, Member of Pontifical Commission for Minors’ Protection Tells ZENIT

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A member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors has said that although the problem of abuse will always exist and some people will never regain trust, the Church still must courageously and relentlessly work to combat clerical sexual abuse.

Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, who was present for two of the Pope’s personal meetings with six abuse victims last Monday, made these remarks in an interview with ZENIT last week.

The chairman of the steering committee of the Center for Child Protection of the Institute of Psychology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome not only shared how one victim said the meeting with the Pope «transformed my heart,» but also responded to critics of the Pope’s meeting who claim it was “window dressing” or a “PR stunt.”

Although abuse will never be eliminated since no one possesses the power to do so, the Jesuit German argued the Church still must have a zero-tolerance policy.

The Church, Fr. Zollner also believes, must courageously raise awareness and, at times, intervene to protect children. According to him, it will, no doubt, continue to fight abuse in order to protect children who are the most precious gift we have as human beings.

This is the second part of a two-part interview, the first of which was published yesterday.


ZENIT: Turning to some media criticism recently, those who call this a ‘public relations stunt,’ what is your response?

Fr. Zollner: I believe that this is quite the opposite of a PR stunt. First of all, if it was a PR stunt, the Vatican could have done much more to publicize it. They could have done much more to present the people and the voices and whatever. Rather, it was kept as a private meeting for the sake of the creating an atmosphere of listening and attention and for the sake of those among the victims who did not want to be mentioned and named.

Secondly, I have been present for two of the encounters of the Holy Father with two of the survivors because a translation was needed. I started to accompany two of the victims/survivors before they came here, especially one with whom I talked on phone on several occasions beforehand, we had long conversations. I met him when he arrived in Rome, and we talked about what was going to happen.

It’s so wonderful when you hear at the end of the meeting, as one person told me: “This has transformed my heart, and I’m now hopefully that my journey can continue. I don’t feel alone anymore”. I quote: “I was alone in the abyss of my solitude and suffering, but I have now encountered somebody who looks with me, together with me, in this abyss. That what was lacking, what was not offered by my diocese.”

If you hear that and you perceive the emotional involvement of the person, the tears … well, it has been so moving and a real great gift to me, being called to be present there and to testify to this, it has been a great gift to me.

Even if it were only six people who have been invited and even if this is “nothing” compared to the great number of people who would’ve liked to meet the Holy Father, I know this has been a huge sign of hope for many victims who read the homily, and who learned about the way the Holy Father has encountered the victims. One English survivor has spoken about the meeting’s effect on him, speaking of it as a “tremendous experience” and “describing the transformation he was realized in himself.” I got an email this morning from a victim in Germany, who was not present, but she found the Holy Father’s homily and wrote “I have searched for this for decades, now I found some peace, I do not feel alone in my Church anymore.” And if this is all that has been achieved through this meeting, that is so much! This means so much to all those who want to enter into this dynamic of healing and reconciliation. The other person I accompanied told me, “It’s not all finished here. I still can’t pray, I still am not a member of the Church anymore, but maybe one day it becomes possible thanks to this encounter here because I want to be part of those who believe and of those who really feel that they are loved and redeemed by Jesus Christ.

ZENIT: For those who ask why a victim from the United States wasn’t represented, what would you say to them?

Fr. Zollner: I was not involved in the decision making regarding from which countries victims would come. I believe it was in one sense due to logistical reasons. If you have people from Europe, they can come much more easily. Also, there had been a meeting of victims of abuse in US in 2008, when Pope Benedict was there, that was organized by Cardinal O’Malley, at that time.

ZENIT: What do you think are the best ways of preventing this in the future? And what discipline do you think is appropriate for offenders?

Fr. Zollner: The best thing would be if no abuse occurred at all. But this is not going to happen. There will always be abuse– sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and physical abuse. This will always be there. There is no world in which this will disappear once and for all. It would be a fantasy of grandiosity to think that the evil that human beings can do can be stopped once and for all. This is for nobody in this world. It’s not possible for the Pope, the Church, not for the President of the U.S … It’s not in our power. Human nature can produce good and evil, and this is something we should reflect on, as we form expectations about what the Church should also do in terms of making away with this once and for and all. This is simply not possible.

What we can do, and what we should do, and where we also have to put much effort, both within the Church and in the organizations with which we work: to do as much as possible to prevent abuse.

What regards clergy, obviously a first step is that we help those who train for priesthood or religious life to be aware of this dimension and of the danger that is inherent in priestly life, in consecrated life that is not really fulfilled and not really grounded in prayer life and in a human maturity that helps or really is instrumental not only to live a vocation, but also the ministry.

ZENIT: Could you elaborate on some of the measures which could help combat the abuse problem?

Fr. Zollner: So, what I refer to is the screening of candidates to the priesthood, the screening of candidates to consecrated life. Then, within the formation, the training program, all areas that are connected to psycho effective maturity, to sexuality, to celibate life should be dealt with in an open, constructive way all that is connected to relationships, to boundaries in relationships should be dealt with properly. In the Seminaries in the United States you generally find a quite good awareness about this dimension, but it is not like this in various parts of the word.

The Church, over the years, has done much to address this. It has developed a much more active stance in how creating standards for admission for the seminary, and how to screen applicants.

The Church can raise general awareness about the necessity to protect children in society at large. Imagine that, according to a government statistics from 2007, in India alone 200 million (!) youth are sexually abused. Ultimately, the Church can be a unique instrument to raise awareness, to spread the news to protect children who are the most precious gift we have as human beings and that they have to be protected, and that, wherever we need to intervene to protect them, we have to have the knowledge and the courage to do so. 

So what we do here in our Center for Child Protection is to make contact with the people from various dioceses around the globe on how can we sensitize people, how we can hel
p them to develop the courage to act appropriately when they see that a child is somewhat disturbed or behaving strangely, or when they see that adults, be they priests, or leaders of a scout group, or football coaches or whoever, act in a way that is inappropriate toward minors, but maybe also towards adults.

So I think all of this really is an opportunity to come to terms with something that has been neglected over the past years or decades, i.e. that all of us have to do our part in safeguarding children and minors. So, this is another area in which the Church as such can become – as it is already in some countries – a champion in safeguarding, by working together with NGOs and with state institutions. I have travelled to a number of countries in four continents, and in some of these countries – like in Kenya or in India –the Church is a sign of hope in the battle for safety for children, and for women for that matter …

We see that people from around the world and from different levels of institutions and ministries of states make contact with us. They want that we learn from them, but sometimes they ask us if we can help them to deal with a perpetrator, for example, if he is teaching in a public school. In some areas of this world, the governments don’t have any measures of treatment or prevention.

ZENIT: And with regard to offenders, how should they be disciplined?

Fr. Zollner: In any sense, I think the Church needs to make very clear that zero-tolerance concerns abuse and all that is connected to abuse. But then you have to take into account that there is not one type of offender, there are various types of offenders and various levels of offenses and crimes and they have to be dealt with accordingly, which presents a considerable complication.

On one hand there are the canonical measures, and very often the offense leads to the dismissal priesthood or from bishophood. For religious congregations and orders, there is an additional question because if you have a religious who is dismissed for priesthood, he is not automatically dismissed from his community or the congregation of his order.

There are a good number of former priests who were dismissed, who sometimes went on to get married or not, and have re-offended, even after having received treatment. That’s a pressing question: how can we, Church and society, control perpetrators better, especially the most deviant ones. These, some of whom have sodomized dozens of people, must be very strictly controlled, to ensure they will not re-offend. A dismissed priest without any social control may be a big threat to young people. Church and society have not yet solutions for offenders who, even after thorough treatment, are likely to reoffend. The most efficient instrument to prevent offenders from reoffending is the establishment of long-term follow-up, including a supervisory group.

ZENIT: Do you believe Pope Francis will meet with victims again? And do you believe that through his acts, he will be able to eventually change the opinions of those who will always remember the Church in this sort of “wounded” sense?

Fr. Zollner: I’m sure Pope Francis is going to meet with more victims.  I am also sure that, whatever he does, whatever he says, whatever the Church comes up with and does, will convince some people that the Church does what it can, but there are some others who will never be satisfied. There is a group of people who are angry at the Church, some are victims/survivors. We have to realize that these people will never be satisfied with whatever the Church does, because they have been wounded so deeply that they consider anything that the Holy Father does too little, to be just to be a “PR stunt” or window-dressing. I feel helpless about this because whatever you do is too little, it’s insufficient, as they say. So, the question comes: “So, should we do anything?”

On the other hand, I perceive that the wind is changing among some people, including journalists, who realize that the Church is really trying to follow up on this. Even if there is contrary news like after the UN Hearings here in January and May this year, we will continue to fight abuse in the Church and outside, no doubt. There will always be people who think we don’t really work on the problem. However, we do whatever we can for a safer world, for children, who are the most precious gift, as Jesus says “whose angels stay close to the Holy Father in Heaven.” This is our motivation and our mission.

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Deborah Castellano Lubov

Deborah Castellano Lubov is Senior Vatican & Rome Correspondent for ZENIT; author of 'The Other Francis' ('L'Altro Francesco') featuring interviews with those closest to the Pope and preface by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin (currently published in 5 languages); Deborah is also NBC & MSNBC Vatican Analyst. She often covers the Pope's travels abroad, often from the Papal Flight (including for historic trips such as to Abu Dhabi and Japan & Thailand), and has also asked him questions on the return-flight press conference on behalf of the English-speaking press present. Lubov has done much TV & radio commentary, including for NBC, Sky, EWTN, BBC, Vatican Radio, AP, Reuters and more. She also has contributed to various books on the Pope and has written for various Catholic publications. For 'The Other Francis': or

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