One year on from the Meeting on the “Protection of Minors in the Church”, Father Hans Zollner SJ describes the steps taken to listen to victims of clerical sexual abuse and ensure that minors are safe in the Church.
The summit on the protection of minors was held in the Vatican on 21-24 February 2019, at the request of Pope Francis.
Presidents of Bishops’ Conference around the world were on hand for the Meeting, where abuse survivors were able to tell their stories.
Fr Hans Zollner SJ, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and president of the Centre for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University, spoke to Vatican Radio about the steps taken since then to prevent abuse.
Vatican Radio: Father Zollner, one year ago the summit on the protection of minors was held in the Vatican what concrete actions and decisions have been taken since then and what is changed in the Church’s approach to the issue.
Fr Hans Zollner, SJ: First of all, we have had a number of changes in the law of the Church. Most of them have been introduced by the new law with the title “You are the Light of the World.”
From the 1st of June 2019 all dioceses are now obliged to establish an office for reporting abuse and for intervention and prevention. All religious and priests are obliged to report cases of abuse to the ecclesiastical authorities, and we have, for the first time, something like the setting up of a system of accountability in cases of negligence or of cover-up of cases by Bishops or by religious leaders of religious communities or other Church organisations.
So this was a major change that was accompanied by three other points that the Pope decided in December: that the age for child sexual exploitation material was raised from 14 to 18, and that pontifical secret was abolished in regards to those cases, that is, no Bishop or Provincial can hide behind what is called the political secret. So a level of confidentiality around documents that some took as a pretext for not cooperating with state authorities. That is gone now.
And thirdly we have a change also in so far as lay canonists, so lay people who are experts in Canon Law, are involved in canonical processes, at least to some degree. At the same time we have seen a change of attitude – at least I can also testify that I’ve seen that happening during the meeting of February when Bishops and other church leaders talked about child protection and met with survivors of clerical sexual abuse. They were deeply impressed. Many of them were in tears when they greeted those abuse victims after they had shared their stories with them. I know from my own experience in talking to a number Bishops’ Conferences around the world that the Presidents came back to their Bishops’ Conference and shared that experience.
I can see that in many parts of the world there is now a deeper awareness and a greater willingness to really tackle the issue and to do what needs to be done so that young people and vulnerable adults are safer in our Church.
Vatican Radio: The Church has received much praise for the courage and transparency shown during and after this summit, but there are also those who have criticised her because they would like more courage and more transparency. How would you respond?
Fr Hans Zollner, SJ: As we have seen the Pope has been pushing and, in terms of timing, we finished that meeting on the 24th of February and on the 1st of June we had a new universal law. In terms of the normal Vatican speed of decision-making and propagation, this is lightning speed and I really see also that the Holy Father is continuing his effort. He will not stop.
We saw a first change in March with new laws for the Vatican City State then a universal law for the whole Church in June. We had the three decisions that I mentioned before in December. So I really see that the Holy Father is continuously pushing forward, and I believe that this is a process that can’t be stopped. We will certainly have more and more of such steps.
It doesn’t happen all at the same time – that is true – but at the same time I believe it really shows that the Pope and many around him, and more and more people in the whole church who are responsible at the local levels understand that this is not something that will go away, and that it is not only a sign of a media attack. But it is a real necessity to continuously work and to be more and more consistent in what we say: that children and vulnerable people should be safe in our midst.
At the same time that we have the necessity to understand better to really implement the new laws and to be able to contribute also to a safer society at large.
Vatican Radio: Currently, there is also the question of the abuse of religious sisters. What could you say about this issue, and above all what can be done about it?
Fr Hans Zollner, SJ: The most important thing that we need to learn – and I would say many have learned – is that victims need to be listened to.
By listening I mean that you sit down with a person and you let the person share whatever she or he wants to share and in whatever way, with all the anger, bitterness, and with the rage and with the sadness that is connected. This is important so that victims can feel and realise that those who listen to them — Church authorities, Bishops, Provincials, whoever that is, and with whomever they want to speak and share – that they are really listened to.
The second thing is that from that experience we learn that whoever is responsible for a certain diocese or a certain province or a certain institution does whatever he or she can, so that the whole structure, the organisational aspect, the systemic aspects is helping that institution so that people can not only feel safe, but also that they are safe enough, and that we really understand the dynamics of relationships.
Now in this case – in the relationship between a religious sister and a Bishop or a Provincial or a priest, either a religious priest or a diocesan priest – that there are levels of dependency, and there are boundaries that need to be kept.
We need to realise that this kind of safety and professional standards – as it is called in the Anglo-phone world – needs to be not only taught and understood better but certainly also implemented. And, in case of violations, punished as any other transgression would be punished in that regard.
With thanks to Vatican News, where this article originally appeared.