Sex abuse expert expresses cautious optimism

Sex abuse expert expresses cautious optimism

Sex abuse expert expresses cautious optimism

Bishop Manuel Ali Herrera of Colombia, Father Hans Zollner of Germany, and Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta answer questions at a conference on clerical sex abuse in Mexico City. (Credit: Ines San Martin/Crux.)

This is part two of an interview with Jesuit Father Hans Zollner.

(Editor’s note: This is part two of an hour-long interview with Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, a member of Pope Francis’s commission for the protection of minors. Part one can be found here.)

MEXICO CITY – Meeting sex abuse survivors face to face may be uncomfortable, but it is a necessary step in the healing process as well as in coming to terms with the crisis. It is often a life-changing, eye-opening experience, and survivors often have had to fight for years to meet with members of the hierarchy. But that might be changing.

Father Hans Zollner, a German who is one of the Church’s leading experts on abuse prevention and a member of Pope Francis’s commission on the protection of minors, told Crux Nov. 9 that he found it “striking” how many of the local bishops were accompanying victims during a recent visit to the pontiff’s native Argentina.

“That was really striking because I’ve hardly ever met any bishops’ conference where I perceived that so many are really impacted by meeting with survivors and it really motivates them,” Zollner said. “I cannot say that this is true for all, but the general response was very positive and I spoke about the issues as I always do.”

Zollner said his recent experiences in Southern Africa and in Latin America have shown him that after the February meeting of leaders of the world’s bishops’ conferences and Pope Francis’s motu proprio, Vos estis lux mundi, (You are the light of the world), the bishops see “very clearly that they need to step up.”

In Africa “it would have been unthinkable even a year ago, that they would invite me to talk about prevention, and then have a second day to discuss the canonical issues,” Zollner said. But ideas seem to be slowly changing in most places. Zollner calls it a “journey,” and expects to see more meetings and dialogue with regards to sex abuse. The journey is “not as fast as we would like it to be, but I see signs of hope.”

Crux spoke with Zollner Nov. 9, after the close of a Nov. 6-8 seminar on abuse prevention in Latin America organized by the interdisciplinary center for child protection of Mexico’s Pontifical University, CEPROME. What follows is an excerpt of that conversation.

Crux: You were in Argentina talking to the bishops. What was your impression?

Zollner: I was there one day for formators from 5 countries, including seminary rectors and other formators, at an event organized by the graduates of the institute of psychology and the Centre for Child Protection from Rome’s Gregorian University. The topic was “safeguarding and formation” and I found these people were very much interested and open.

The next day I went to Pilar, to the place where the bishops’ conference meets, and I found open ears. I found very interesting reactions, questions which showed that those bishops really had thought about this for quite some time.

What was really striking was that many bishops who came to share with me personally not only showed that they understand the gravity of the situation and the seriousness of the challenge of dealing with abuse and cover-up of abuse, but I think all with whom I spoke personally, and it was a good number of almost 140 bishops who were present, accompany victims of abuse and I could feel that.

That was really striking because I’ve hardly ever met any bishops’ conference where I perceived that so many are really impacted by meeting with survivors, and it really motivates them. I cannot say that this is true for all but the general response was very positive and I spoke about the issues as I always do. I found also three months ago in Southern Africa that the meeting of the bishops’ conferences in February has had its clear and palpable effect and the new motu proprio “You are the light of the world” (Vos estis lux mundi) has shown to the bishops very clearly that they need to step up.

Do you think we will see other meetings like the one in February?

Sure. This is a journey. The new law has been promulgated for a three-year period, and I think that within two and a half years we’ll have feedback on how it works. We need some clarity on certain definitions. I think the motu proprio is a huge step forward, but we need more.

Isn’t this the riskiest part, with people thinking “we have the law, we held the meeting,” move on?

No. I honestly think the contrary has happened. In most parts of the world people have realized only through this meeting, its aftermath, and the new law that this is not an issue they can ignore, that it won’t go away and that it will also come to them.

In a few countries we’ve been dealing with this for decades in church and society. But in most parts of Latin America and almost all parts of Africa, Asia and Oceania that is not true. They have only now realized how serious it is. And I think the February meeting was a very important step forward, precisely as the pope had envisioned when he called for it: That the whole Church would come on board for this. And I see signs of this. Since February I’ve been to different countries in Latin America and Africa, met with the New Zealand bishops and many leaders of religious orders. But it was most impressive to see the Southern African bishops talking about this. It would have been unthinkable even a year ago, that they would invite me to talk about prevention, and then have a second day to discuss the canonical issues.

I always saw the February meeting as a wake-up call, but also as the pope telling the bishops from around the world “If ten years from now, someone accuses you of cover-up, you won’t be able to say ‘I didn’t know what to do’.”

Sure.

It seems to have worked …

I honestly believe that the February meeting has enormously contributed to that, as it has catalyzed such a reaction on the side of the bishops and of religious superiors. For instance, the USG and the UISG [the worldwide federations for men’s and women’s religious orders] are now also working hard on how to go forward with this at the level of religious orders.

But there are also other aspects, such as the #MeToo movement, that have served as a wake-up call for some countries, to the fact that sexual abuse is widespread in society. I follow the situation in the U.S., and of late you have accusations against all kinds of religious leaders from different religious denominations, the Boy Scouts, in sports, teachers, university professors, medical doctors, psychologists, police, military, and so on.

I believe there’s a general growth in the perception of the gravity of the problem, but we are far away from coming to the point of understanding how deep the problem is in society at large and how big the numbers are according to all experts. And the Church is of course, always part of this.

When I was recently in Africa, there is certainly more awareness of the rights of children over the last years. We celebrate 30 years of the Child Rights Convention. You see how after 30 years if you talk about it and promote it, you come to a new level of awareness. And this is something I believe we are working for. It’s slow but ultimately will be effective in a change of attitude. Definitely, it’s not as fast as we would like it to be, but I see signs of hope. After Dallas things did get better in the Catholic Church as we see in the drop of allegations since then, but when we had the double whammy of McCarrick and the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, a lot of people got rocked harder because they thought that it had been gone forever.

Don’t you ever get depressed?

No, personally, I don’t. That doesn’t mean that there are no challenges.

Or frustrated?

My frustration tolerance levels are high. I think it has to do with my formation as a psychotherapist. It’s allowed me to understand that people don’t act black or white, there are always shades, and they have more or less conscious reasons why they act the way they act. When you look into people’s personalities, histories and lives you can always reckon why they do what they do.

Moreover, my doctoral thesis in theology was on the spiritual discernment of St. Ignatius, and that also helps me to understand that there’s an ongoing journey to find out what God wants you to do in your life.

Finally, I studied a lot about Church history. I come from a diocese, Regensburg, that was established in 739 by St. Boniface and that has seen it all through Medieval times, Reformation and secularization in 1803. The visible face of the Church has changed many times, but the Church of Jesus Christ has continued to live as he promises in Mathew 16.

I’m not saying that there is no crisis, but the level of agitation that I see in some parts doesn’t help us to really look soberly and, as Ignatius would say, with “indifference” or with personal detachment into the situation of the Church. One shouldn’t push one’s personal agenda, but try to see, as best as one can, what is needed so that the message of the Gospel can be received and lived out

If you lived in the U.S., you’d probably lose your patience …

Agreed, and this is the point: You cannot detach completely yourself from the situation. I’ve been to the U.S. twice this year, and I’m going there again next year. I came in touch with the reaction there. What I perceived in the two visits in different places is that once you get to a certain level of going beyond the agitation then you realize that people are looking for something more balanced, breaching between the extremes.

Between the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report and McCarrick, do you think things were actually getting better in the U.S. after Dallas, or was the improvement only on the surface?

I cannot express myself on that because I don’t know the situation in each of the about 200 dioceses you have in the U.S. But for me, this is precisely the type of expectation from a society that believes in the immediate effect of a new law and its letter, i.e. that by simply introducing a new law, guidelines or a charter, things will change completely and forever, overnight. I think this is unrealistic. Things as complex and as huge as the Church cannot possibly change on one day. The expectation that everyone will do absolutely everything according to the norm that has been introduced is understandable, but simply unrealistic. I surely understand the anger about non-compliance especially if you feel that you yourself are expected in a coherent way.

I studied some years ago the guidelines around safeguarding introduced by American Universities. If you go through all the documents, learn about all the offices that have been set up and count all the obligatory formation sessions: goodness me! Everything is taken care off. But then, you freeze. Because you realize that this is like trying to get after every detail and tweak it so that you reach the last little possible loophole – and then you are in danger to lose the big picture and you rely simply on what has been established without looking out for the bigger issues. This is my impression at least.

This is a cultural thing. I’ve lived for 20 years now in Rome, where you have a very different culture when it comes to how you apply law. Even the Germans, we are different. For instance, the widespread culture of lawsuits you have in your country on all kinds of things isn’t exactly our cup of tea.

You’re headed to Peru. There’s been one big case in the media, the situation with Luis Fernando Figari and the Sodalitium. Yet there seems to be no interest to look any further, and you even have a bishop suing the victims. What is your expectation going there?

I don’t know what to expect. When I’m going to a country where I have never been, I try to prepare for everything. I’m going to two universities, the Catholic University and the Jesuit University. I’m assuming people are interested, if not, they wouldn’t set up lectures. But I’m also invited to meet the bishops in January.

I’m interested to see what happens, because so much has been going on in Peru. The new CELAM president is from Peru, and I spoke with a bishop from Peru here who is a former member of the Sodalitium. I’m prepared to face a situation that is certainly difficult, and a society and a Church that is probably split on other issues as wells as a divided bishops’ conference.

Follow Shannon Levitt on Twitter: @ShannonLevitt6

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma


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