More than 600 people gathered in Sydney over two days to hear from the Pope’s expert on child protection and the prevention of abuse.
Fr Hans Zollner SJ, the recognised authority on safeguarding children, delivered lectures and led workshops at the Creating a Safe Church from Within conference which looked at why abuse occurred in the past, what has been done to fix the issue and what must be done to prevent it occurring again.
In attendance were victims and survivors of abuse, priests, nuns, school principals, teachers, parishioners, volunteers and Church employees.
Fr Hans pointed out that while the Catholic Church “has done a lot” to tackle abuse, there is “a lot to be done”.
“Pope Francis has put this on the agenda of the Catholic Church worldwide. It is a prime issue with which we have to deal with” Fr Hans said.
“A few years ago, not many local Churches [around the world] would talk about or even mention child abuse”. It was seen as a “Western problem, an Anglo-Saxon problem, a European problem”, however, this is an “issue that won’t go away anymore” according to Fr Hans.
VIEW: Images from the Conference below or click here
Fr Hans said he has travelled to “more than 50 countries” lecturing on the prevention of child abuse and advising on how to strengthen child-safe policies and procedures and emphasised “people are now dealing with the issue. I personally have not met with active resistance” from Church leaders around the world in implementing a safer Church.
Hosted by the Catholic Church at Campbelltown Catholic Club and featuring Fr Hans as the keynote speaker, the conference is part of an ongoing commitment by the Catholic Church to provide regular training and education to all those engaged in ministry with the Church.
Bishop Brian Mascord of the Diocese of Wollongong and Bishop Vincent Long of the Diocese of Parramatta were part of the opening welcome along with local indigenous children presenting a Welcome to Country and prayer and reflection from those affected by child sexual abuse.
Bishop Vincent stressed the Catholic Church needed “deep institutional change” to deal with abuse and that it is now “time to listen with great humility” to the victims and survivors of abuse and that “we owe it to the victims, their families and their loved ones.”
Bishop Brian was appreciative of the victims and survivors who attended and welcomed them to the conference. “Thank you for being here. It’s not easy, [I am] so grateful that you are here.”
The highly experienced and widely respected governance expert Susan Pascoe AM facilitated proceedings. Susan urged the audience to use the conference as an opportunity to “focus on what we can do to prevent this [abuse] from happening again.”
Leading a reflection on day two, headmaster of St Patrick’s College Ballarat, John Crowley, emphasised the process of healing past hurt is “a journey of unreserved acknowledgement” of wrongdoing.
“Acknowledge fully the hurt of the past. Walk with victims and survivors, acknowledge the abuse. Without trust, how can hope exist? Restore the dignity of those we have hurt,” John said.
German by birth, Fr Hans is a theologian, psychotherapist and psychologist. He has been a member of the Pope’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors since 2014 and is head of the Centre for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Fr Hans is also a member of the Society of Jesus, the same religious order that Pope Francis belongs to.
Both days of the conference featured significant audience participation and interactive workshops. Questions from the audience were taken and Fr Hans stressed the absolute importance of “listening to and hearing the voices of victims and survivors of abuse” as an integral part of providing justice to those who have been harmed and changing our Church.
He then went on to outline what is being doing around the globe to support victims and survivors of harm and what members of the Church, including leaders, can do at an individual and collective level to make the local Church a safer place.
The Catholic Church in Australia is in the “top five” leading countries in the world adopting processes to safeguard children and vulnerable people, according to Fr Hans.
Fr Hans said that while this is a “difficult moment” for the Church in Australia dealing with the issue of historical abuse, it is a “necessary one”.
Touching on trust, Fr Hans incisively pointed out that the trust that had been built over centuries and generations by the Catholic Church has been destroyed in a few years because of the child sexual abuse failures, even though most of the abuse, seen through the recent inquiries, had occurred during the 1960s and 70s. “Trust has been broken”, Fr Hans said.
He went on to explain how the Church cannot ask people to “trust us now” and that the only way of rebuilding that broken trust is to let victims and survivors see the Church as operating differently. Further, the actions of the Church will build trust and actions must be measureable, palable and visible.
Fr Hans mentioned that since guidelines and proper screening processes had been put in place over the last two decades, there has been almost no new allegations of abuse reported in the Catholic Church in Australia.
Child protection “needs to get into our system, our core, our heart. Safeguarding needs to get into the DNA of the Church” Fr Hans said. He went on to discuss the need for everyone to let go of power we hold, allow the governance to change and deeply consider the type of Church we wish to be.
In addition to the physical and psychological damage of abuse, Fr Hans pointed out the deep theological damage, “what we did was destroying the message of the Gospel”.
“One thing you can do is listen” to survivors and victims of abuse, according to Fr Hans, so their process of healing can begin. “We must listen to survivors of abuse”.
Fr Hans spoke about not waiting for the necessary changes in Canon Law or hierarchical governance shifts, but that we all have a responsibility to open the discussion and to act – to change ourselves no matter our role within the Church. This call to action was directed at all present, and not just the Bishops and clergy.
The conference was organised by the Diocese of Wollongong and the Diocese of Parramatta, supported by the Diocese of Broken Bay, the NSW Ombudsman, Catholic Professional Standards Ltd, the NSW Professional Standards Office, Carroll & O’Dea, Makinson d’Apice and Catholic Church Insurance.