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ROME – Ahead of a three-day summit on child protection taking place in Poland against the backdrop of the country’s recent abuse scandals, perhaps Catholicism’s leading expert has said progress is being made and that new legal tools drafted over the past few years mean bishops now have “no excuse” for failure.

Speaking to Crux, Jesuit Father Hans Zollner said that while much still needs to be done in terms of awareness and safeguarding, on a general level, people in the Church now are taking the problem of clerical sexual abuse “much more seriously.”

Zollner, head of the Gregorian University’s newly minted “Institute of Anthropology [and] Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care” and a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors (PCPM), pointed to several steps taken by Pope Francis in recent years to get everyone on the same page regarding the urgency of both the problem of clerical abuse and the proper handling of cases that arise.

These steps include new legislation for Vatican City passed in May 2019 requiring all clerics and members of religious orders to report abuse cases to Church authorities, including abuse committed by bishops or cardinals, as well as the pope’s decision in December 2019 to abolish the pontifical secret in clerical abuse cases.

Zollner also pointed to the publication in May 2020 of the Vatican’s vademecum, or handbook, on handling abuse cases, which outlined the procedures to follow for when an ordained minister is accused of abusing a minor.

Given all these steps, “the bishops know what they are supposed to do, and they have the handbook to do that, so they have no excuse anymore,” Zollner said, adding that the lifting of the pontifical secret specifically “gives no excuse whatsoever to deny collaboration with state authorities.”

Zollner spoke to Crux ahead of a workshop on “Safeguarding God’s Children” being held in Warsaw from Sept. 19-22, which is being organized by the Polish Bishops Conference and the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in collaboration with the St. Joseph Foundation.

The workshop is in part designed to help increase awareness about the problem of clerical abuse throughout central and eastern Europe, and it will also inform bishops of what their current legal responsibilities are, and the proper procedures to follow for when allegations of abuse arise.

Learning these best practices is of special relevance in Poland, which, for the past few years, has been rocked by massive public clerical abuse scandals. Some 10 bishops have been removed from their positions and sanctioned by the Vatican in the past year alone, for both abuse and cover-up.

Nearly every Polish bishop finds himself in the hot seat today, as pressure mounts and scandals continue to come out. Among those under intense scrutiny is Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz – retired Archbishop of Krakow, and former secretary to Pope John Paul II – who has been accused of ignoring credible abuse accusations while heading the church in Krakow.

Speaking of the safeguarding webinar, Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, President of the Polish Catholic Bishops Conference, said in a statement that he is happy the meeting is taking place, and voiced hope that the discussion “will allow us to look not only at the difficulties we face today, but also to exchange experiences and best practices and that it will mark the beginning of a future collaboration, which will result in common actions in our part of Europe.”

Despite Poland’s recent troubles, Zollner said Warsaw was not selected as the workshop’s venue on the basis of the recent scandals, but that it had been in the works for the past three years, so well before the most public scandals began to come out, but had been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The choice of Poland, Zollner said, is because the country has the largest Catholic population in the region and is therefore a strategic place to reinforce proper safeguarding procedure.

“Poland is now following the path of some of the western European countries,” Zollner said, noting that even just five years ago, some in Poland were dismissive of the abuse issue, saying “‘This is a western problem, this is a problem with secularized societies,’ but now you can’t hear this in Poland anymore because it’s very clear that it has happened in decades in which Poland seemed to be the stronghold of a very, very dedicated, very clear and determined Catholic Church.”

Most of the abuse cases rocking Poland are decades old, but the mishandling of cases has been damaging to the Church’s image, he said, noting that “in all probability we can foresee that the same thing will happen in other parts of central and eastern Europe…maybe not in scale, but certainly in proportion.”

“In many societies, talking about sexuality is still a taboo, and the central and eastern countries are not an exception to that,” Zollner said, noting that it is not only difficult to speak about the misconduct or failings of people perceived as moral heroes in central and eastern Europe, but there is also an “understandable reluctance to see the government as partners.”

Overcoming this sense of natural and even justified skepticism and encouraging Church leadership and other ecclesial representatives to work with authorities on child protection will be difficult, he said, but insisted that progress is already being made.

Programs for safeguarding have already been established at several universities and institutions throughout central and eastern Europe, including Catholic universities in Croatia, Slovakia, Hungary, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic, among others.

“There is movement,” Zollner said, “but not in the same way, not in the same pace.”

In addition to exploring the right attitude to have in facing abuse cases and the tools available to address the problem, this week’s workshop will also address the problem of clerical abuse from a theological and spiritual perspective.

“We know that these areas of Europe are strong in spirituality, but there is also a need to reflect on this kind of spirituality and we’ll have to see what we can do for the enhancement of prayer life and theological reflection vis a vis this very sad reality,” Zollner said.

For bishops in places like Poland who are dealing with public scandals and who are tasked with healing and recovery amid public fallout, Zollner said his biggest piece of advice is to “acknowledge the truth.”

“Despite the fact that it may shock you, it may challenge your image of the Church, of Church representatives, including priests and bishops; it may challenge your faith in God. Despite all of this, we need to face it,” he said.

Recalling how Saint John Paul II, in the wake of the abuse scandals that exploded in the United States, told cardinals in 2002 it was “a time of purification,” Zollner insisted that this has to be acknowledged, and “We have to stand with all those who have been harmed and we have to share the harm that has been done by the hands of those who spoke and acted in the name of God.”

He also advised Church leaders to “be more and more of a community in this. Don’t split it off, don’t delegate only to experts. You as a Church and as Church leaders, you have to own it. In as much as we own it, we will move on. Otherwise, we will get stuck.”

In a video message sent to workshop participants, Pope Francis said that “Only by facing the truth of these cruel behaviors and humbly seeking the forgiveness of survivors will the Church be able to find its way to be once again confidently considered a place of welcome and safety for those in need.”

“Our expressions of contrition must be converted into a concrete path of reform, both for the prevention of further abuse and to guarantee others confidence in the fact that our efforts will lead to a real and reliable change,” he said.

While recognizing one’s mistakes and our failures can make them feel fragile and vulnerable, “it can also be a time of splendid grace, a time of emptying, which opens new horizons of love and mutual service,” the pope said, insisting that if the Church admits its failings, “we will have nothing to fear, because it will be the Lord himself who will have led us to that point.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen