A pivot point in the Church's abuse response

In the Catholic Church’s response to the sexual abuse of minors, three central roles are now held by Jesuits. Pope Francis is the Church’s sole lawmaker who will ultimately set the global direction. Archbishop Luis F. Ladaria, S.J., the recently appointed prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, heads a dicastery that receives a case file on every credible allegation of clergy sexual abuse in the world, each to be processed for disciplinary measures.

The third, Father Hans Zollner, is seen as the pope’s point man on the issue. Father Zollner, 51, is a licenced psychologist and psychotherapist and was a member of the German government’s working group on child abuse. Dean of the Psychology Institute at Rome’s Gregorian University, he was chair of the steering committee for the university’s Oct. 3-6 conference on “Child Dignity in the Digital World,” which discussed how children can be exposed to online predators, sexting, grooming behaviors and dehumanizing pornography, all of which can enter their homes via the internet. He is also a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which currently is wrapping up its three-year term.

Father Zollner discussed the work of the commission and other issues in an interview at Gregorian University.

Our Sunday Visitor: What has the commission done?

Father Hans Zollner, S.J.: In its advisory role, with Cardinal Seán O’Malley [of Boston] as leader, it recommended more accountability of bishops and a multi-level response to sexual abuse, which must not only be legal but also educational.

OSV: How has that progressed?

Father Zollner: In Rome, things don’t work as in Anglo-Saxon or Germanic countries, where you move from A to B to C. It’s not like that. We’re still waiting on the definition of the necessary procedures regarding bishops’ accountability.

OSV: Where is the delay?

Father Zollner: Opposition is not active. If it exists, it’s passive. Four Vatican Congregations — that for bishops, for the evangelization of peoples, for Eastern Churches and for consecrated life — have to work out the procedures, which must then be presented to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The procedures have to be consistent and coherent.

OSV: Was the recent conference on children’s safety online an attempt to show that, although the Church has been tardy in facing clerical sexual abuse, it can take the lead in a related problem?

Father Zollner: The aim was to increase awareness of the dangers, not an attempt to prove we are trailblazers. But it was the first conference to bring together all the major players in the field and give them time together in working groups. Collaboration is needed between governments, social workers, researchers and different religions to master the plague. I’ve already heard of follow-up conferences in Africa, Latin America and Asia and new research projects involving top scientists.

OSV: What do you see as the causes of priests abusing minors?

Father Zollner: There are various causes, but the most basic is a lack of a well-integrated spirituality, which can find expressions other than the strictly sexual, for instance, alcoholism.

We need more sound research. A good recent study in Germany used material from countries ... such as the U.S.A., Germany, Australia, Ireland, Holland and Belgium [indicating] that the average age of clerical abusers is 39, which is a decade or more higher than abusers in other contexts, such as families or sporting circles. This indicates a resistance to the impulse among clergy.

Strictly speaking, most are not pedophiles, which means abusers of pre-pubescent children. Most are guilty of abuse of adolescents — ephebophilia. Ninety percent of cases are due to a few serial abusers. At the other end of the scale are those accused because of one offense, which might be kissing or hugging.

OSV: Do you consider clericalism one of the causes?

Father Zollner: Yes, if by that you mean a closed system, which sets itself up as a total reality with total control. You can find such systems beyond the Church — look at the Harvey Weinstein scandal. People ... did not tell what they knew. In some African countries, priests have a prestige like chieftains. They are beyond criticism, which is a risky situation, as healthy societies need free, critical voices.

OSV: Is clerical child abuse decreasing, or is our awareness now shifting to developing nations?

Father Zollner: It’s decreasing. There are very few allegations referring to offenders in the recent past and also the present. The measures introduced by the churches in most Western countries are working. For the past three years at the Gregorian we have had a course specializing in training to combat this problem. We have about 20 students a year, and they go back to their countries to train others.

In addition, I’ve traveled to over 50 countries talking to and consulting with episcopal conferences, seminaries, priests’ associations and religious orders. I’m just back from Fiji and Australia and am about to leave for Austria, Slovakia and the Cape Verde islands. Courses like that at the Gregorian have been set up or are being set up elsewhere, such as the Australian Catholic University, in Manila, Quito, Chile and Ghana, but they’re not full time and don’t lead to an academic degree as here.

For many Third World countries, there is little awareness of this problem and no resources to combat it. Moreover, for them it is only one problem among others concerning children — child marriages, child soldiers, starvation and trafficking in children.

OSV: Are there efforts for reconciliation with victims?

Father Zollner: Some victims do not want to have anything to do again with the Church. But I also know inspiring cases where the victims are well along the road to reconciliation.

OSV: Has the Vatican been slow in responding?

Father Zollner: (Pope) Benedict XVI began the change, and Francis has given it new impulse. He has admitted to past negligence and slowness, but having been at his meetings with survivors of abuse, I know that his heart goes out completely to them. He has extraordinary empathy, as with others who are defenseless.

OSV: Will the procedures for dealing with bishops be finalized before your commission concludes its term?

Father Zollner: I don’t know. That’s a matter for the Vatican congregations. The commission will have its term extended and have new members. We much regretted that Marie Collins left, however she still continues to work with the commission. Overall, I would say that the lay-clerical commission has functioned well.

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OSV: It’s reported that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has a backlog of sexual abuse cases because of understaffing. What measures are being taken to fix the problem?

Father Zollner: The backlog, to a large extent, is due to cases from the U.S.A.: The bishops there decided to send cases to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith even when the state authorities do not investigate them due to the statute of limitations. Until a few years ago, almost nobody trained as a penal canon lawyer. There are new and more staff now, even for cases in languages which were not covered previously.

Desmond O’Grady writes from Rome.