ROME – According to one of the Catholic Church’s foremost experts on clerical sexual abuse prevention, by ignoring the voice of the victims “we are excluding the voice of Jesus who speaks to us through them.”

German Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, President of the Institute of Anthropology-Interdisciplinary Studies on Protection and Human Dignity (IADC) of the Pontifical Gregorian University, was speaking at a daylong “conversation” held on Thursday in Madrid, Spain, organized by the publishing house PPC.

During his presentation, Zollner, who is also a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, said that Christians need to “open our eyes, ears, and mouth when we see something that could be abuse; we all have the responsibility to form ourselves, to inform ourselves, and to push our communities to act.”

“People affected by abuse in the church want, above all, to be recognized as victims, and that the bishops acknowledge that they have been wounded, abused by a member of the community” he said. “A spiritual recognition is important, because many victims have felt wounded in their faith and that influences their relationship with God, a wound that makes them suffer a lot.”

Zollner also said that the Catholic Church is twice accountable: to society and to God. However, he warned, “sometimes society tends to forget that there are other sectors where abuse is very present, and I am not talking about families, where it is much more difficult to know, but in sports, tourism, cinema, even in the media.”

“The church has to do everything necessary and not only what it is obliged to do,” he insisted.

Speaking about Spain, which is currently seeing two parallel commissions looking into historic allegations of clerical abuse, one sanctioned by the Spanish Congress and one launched by the bishops, Zollner said that “naturally, we do not exist outside of political polarization and we cannot detach ourselves from this reality.”

Yet when it comes to drawing “a strategy,” Zollner said, it cannot be rooted in confrontation, because it will be fundamentally “to the detriment of the victims.”

Commenting on the role of the media when it comes to uncovering abuses, he said that “naturally” there are some rare enemies of the church, and even those who want to destroy it, “but the criticism of the media is usually based on facts.”

“If there were no cases of abuse and if there were no cover-ups, the newspapers would not write and there would be no scandal,” he said, insisting that “if we produce scandal and bad news, we feed the newspapers that want to attack the church. In this sense, the first task is to end the scandals, and to clean what needs to be cleaned.”

Furthermore, he said, “victims still today find closed doors and it is difficult for them to find human persons who listen to them and accompany them.”

To this day, the Jesuit priest said he still finds victims and survivors who have been ignored by the church.

Zollner used the sacrament of confession as an example: There must be an examination of conscience, repentance, a clear confession of sins, and reparation. When it comes to abuse, he said, the examination are the reports that look into the crimes and the behavior of the institution; repentance “must be sincere, from the heart, and not just easy words;” and reparation, which many times is simply listening to the survivors and acknowledging the crime committed to them. “For many, that is all they are looking for,” he said.

“The authority of the church itself, even of the pope,” is at stake, “since abuse touches the foundation of our faith. It is the greatest challenge we are facing,” according to Zollner.

Fernando García Salmones, who suffered sexual abuse in a school of the Claretian missionaries, and Hortensia López, who suffered abuse of power as a Discalced Carmelite, took part in the same roundtable.

“When I look back, I see that child who was a little mouse standing before a giant vulture,” said García, who was abused in 1975, at the age of 14, by his religion teacher.

“I would like the church to stop fighting against the victims and take the step towards an attitude of listening,” he said, adding that the Claretian missionaries “have listened to us and they have believed us” during the process of restorative justice that he and other survivors went through.

During four years, he said, three children entered the room of a priest every day and no one wondered what was going on there.

“Perhaps we need to look into it. Perhaps a person who is called to form others on morals and love, maybe cannot be just anyone. Or maybe, he mustn’t be forced into celibacy. I am not a believer, and as such, I am intruding into your faith, but maybe celibacy is a mistake, because we have a repressed person caring for children,” he said, addressing a mostly Catholic auditorium.

Sharing her own story, López said that she went through three different communities until she reached her breaking point in 2015, when she was 41 years old.

In her experience, she said, “you are not a person, you are the prioress’s puppet,” and having spoken with three bishops, she found no help. In fact, one of them told her that she should “withhold as much as she can, and when she can’t take it anymore, she should leave. And that is what I did.”

The head of her community, she said, even banned her from telling her story to Pope Francis in a letter, and when she tried to send the letter to the pontiff through her bishop, the prelate said he wouldn’t send it because “this pope answers to everyone, and he will answer to you, and you don’t know the retaliation you will have to tolerate from the prioress.” It was this bishop, she said, who told her to take as much as she could and then leave.

She was eventually forced to leave the Carmelites, and when she did, she sent a letter to the Vatican’s Congregation for Religious. The congregation’s response was that what had happened was not “of our competence, because you are no longer a religious.”

Having spent 20 years as a Discalced Carmelite, by the time she left, “I didn’t know how to use a computer; I had anxiety walking on the streets,” she said. She received no support from the church, and it wasn’t until she wrote a book that she found support in others who had been in a similar situation.

“In the convent, I was treated by a therapist for a depression caused by the mistreatment of the prioress,” she said. “But when I left, no one took responsibility for what had happened to me. No financial help whatsoever to start all over again, after a life given to the church.”

“I was 41, had spent 20 years in the convent; I was depressed, had no career, do you think that such a person will find a job? The church has to take responsibility for the fact that the religious who leave have nothing,” she said.

“Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, applies to everyone,” López said. “The church has institutions to help everyone: people who leave prostitution, people who are alcoholic, drug addicts, but not the religious. Why? Is it a sin to leave religious life? When the church preaches and practices mercy with the sinner, a person who leaves religious life deserves no help?”

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