A member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors has refuted accusations from some abuse victim groups that Pope Francis’ recent meeting with six people who had suffered clerical sex abuse victims was a “public-relations stunt.”
Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, who was present for two of the Pope’s personal meetings with 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 shares not only why Pope Francis is committed to tackling the abuse problem, but also explains why his actions are in continuity with Benedict XVI’s.
Fr. Zollner reveals that Pope Benedict was for him, and for all those who knew about this issue, a hero in combating abuse and in doing whatever could be done to prevent it continuing.
This is the first of a two-part interview, the second of which will be published tomorrow.
ZENIT: Could you describe your role on the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors? With what are you tasked in this role?
Fr. Zollner: At the moment, all of us, except Cardinal O’Malley, have the same role. He is the coordinator of the group, of the commission, of the seven other members, and of the work of the commission for the protection of minors. All the other seven are equal. We are about to add new members. We asked the Holy Father to add new members, especially from those continents from where we don’t have representatives now, which is Africa, Asia, and Oceania.
We have worked on Sunday, quite a bit, to identify people who could be invited and now we wait to see who will be named. For the rest, all of us have certain competences and expertise. I work here at our Center for Child Protection at the Institute of Psychology of the Gregorian University. We have founded this Center that works for the prevention of abuse in four continents. In this sense, I can offer my experience and my contacts to the commission’s work in the line of education and prevention.
ZENIT: What do you consider the commission’s primary goals?
Fr. Zollner: There are many goals we have identified. We have tried to identify a number of goals that we think are a priority for all of us, for the Church. One is that, in a general way, our work, our communications and our presence here in Rome send a signal to the whole Church and to society at large that the sexual abuse of minors, of children of adolescents is a problem in many countries around the globe. We want to raise awareness. We want to raise awareness to create sensitivity for this topic and to discuss it in places where so far there is no sensitivity at all. It’s not the same as in the US or Canada where there’s been 30 years of these discussions, or Ireland where it’s been 20 years. This is topic one. For there are these areas of the world where there is very little knowledge, and very little idea of how to deal with it. This is a byproduct of creation and work of the commission itself, that the Holy Father sends a strong signal to the whole Church and beyond it.
Another primary goal is that the awareness of how one should encounter victims, how they should be helped and have a voice to communicate their hurt, their anger, their loneliness. The meeting of the Holy Father with six victims from three different countries has shown much how this has to be done.
Furthermore, it is certainly one of our priorities that the refrain “Victims First” is really put into action, that this effectively has relevance and affects policies, attitudes and behavior of religious superiors and bishops. And all along, we have identified goals that are related to the behavior of Church officials, as well as all those goals that Cardinal Séan O’Malley spoke about at the press conference on May 3, e.g. what to do to clarify and to define criteria for bishops’ accountability. It is also very relevant when we talk about prevention of abuse and persecution of those who abused.
ZENIT: What would you consider the commission’s biggest feat? Biggest obstacle?
Fr. Zollner: I think the commission brings together as of now – and this will be much more when we have the group complete – people from different fields and areas with a whole lot of experience, decades of research, of therapy, trying to understand this phenomenon of abuse of minors, from many aspects, on many levels. We come from different cultures, languages, backgrounds, different professional and working backgrounds. All this contributes to a better understanding of the reality of abuse in the Church.
And it’s interesting to discuss things—although we don’t always agree on every single point. What I really appreciate is how we are all in the same boat, really, that we all want to work to bring about some concrete steps now. Even if the whole attitudinal change will take many years, we have to start now. I find our conversations to be frank, open, and hopeful. It is interesting to see where other people come from, and what is the background behind their arguments, reasoning, and explanations.
The biggest obstacles, certainly, will be not just whether and how we agree or disagree, but even the practical, logistical things like how and through what means we’ll be communicating and this will become an even bigger challenge when we expand to include people from other places and backgrounds. We’ll naturally have to meet personally because you just can’t arrange everything via email or virtual communication. Moreover, we will have some subgroups that will be identified according to special areas and special concerns. These groups will have some defined goals in working together. But all will be drawn and brought back to, the commission itself. And the commission will then discuss it and review it, and pass on recommendations to the Holy Father.
ZENIT: How do you believe the Holy Father has responded to this tragedy? Also, could you make a comparison between his efforts to those of Benedict XVI, as well as to John Paul II, at least for those which came to light during his papacy?
Fr. Zollner: I believe from the beginning of his pontificate it has become clear that he is very well aware of the magnitude of the problem and especially of the suffering of the victims. In his very first encounter with the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, only some two weeks after being elected Pope, he already mentioned that the congregation has to keep working in the same line that Pope Benedict had indicated. Then he addressed the crowd at the public audiences–I think it was at the beginning of May last year 2013, six weeks after his election, when he spoke to a group of people who work with victims and work for prevention of abuse here in Italy.
He also met received us from the Center for Child Protection of the Gregorian University and encouraged us to continue our efforts. So there were clear signals and many other things.
In these days, we see all the various things Pope Francis has been trying to do, in terms of financial reform and with regard to the organization of dicasteries and things related to the Curia. He has so often spoken about the poor, the vulnerable, the refugees, about human trafficking and prostitution – and the need to work as hard as possible to change the injustice, the suffering and the hopelessness of so many. In this line we were glad that the meeting last Monday took place and how it took place.
The Holy Father is without any doubt committed to tackling the problem of abuse in the Church. He has delivered his homily in Spanish, so one can see it’s pretty obvious that he had written it himself. One can be sure that it’s really his and what he really thinks. There are very strong statements in that homily. He had spoken to the journalists when he had come back in May from the Holy Land. He used the strongest of words from a Catholic point of view, comparing sexual abuse to abuse of the Holy Eucharist, which in theological terms is one of the worst things you can think of. It is very much in line with what Pope Benedict wrote, especially in his letter to the Catholics in Ireland in 2010. The Pope has confirmed the line of his predecessor Benedict, in terms of canonical implications. He has confirmed the line of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in dealing with perpetrators when he said in his homily that all clergy, including bishops, would be persecuted according to that canonical framework without any hesitation. This was evidenced when during these weeks an archbishop was reduced to the state of a layman, i.e. he has been dismissed from the clerical state, which is the greatest punishment you can give to a member of the clergy, especially to an archbishop who was a Nuncio.
This is very much in the line of what Pope Benedict had followed even when he was prefect on the Congregation of the Faith. With the support of John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger in 2002, for example, called all the US-bishops to report on the cases in the US, and he established the position of the Promoter of Justice, at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Benedict gave much power to that position in persecuting offenders in the Church. He promulgated stricter laws and clarified, once and for all, that all clergy and bishops have to work together with the state justice according to the state law, the penal and civil law, that is in place in the respective country.
ZENIT: To those who argue that Pope Benedict was not active, or not active enough, in combating the sexual abuse during his pontificate, how would you respond?
Fr. Zollner: I would certainly disagree and would say these people really have no idea what was behind all of this. What Cardinal Ratzinger has done as prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and later as Pope Benedict, what he put in place, this was a revolution in terms of organization and taking responsibility.
He took away the responsibility for dealing with those cases from the Congregation for Clergy and put it into the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He centralized it because he was very well aware, from all that he was reading, that in the dioceses at the local level or the national level, for almost all countries around the world, there was and is very little competence in terms of penal canon lawyers, who could really follow the cases in that sense, that they have enough personnel, structure, and means to deal with these issues. So, Benedict was for me, and for all those who knew about the issue here, a hero in combating abuse and in doing whatever could be done to prevent further abuse.