[Editor’s note: This is part one of an hour-long interview with Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, a member of Pope Francis’s commission for the protection of minors. Part two will be published tomorrow.]

MEXICO CITY – Last week, Father Hans Zollner, a German Jesuit who is a member of Pope Francis’s Commission for the Protection of Minors, showed an uncharacteristic moment of impatience during a Q&A when he was asked by a priest why he wasn’t focusing on homosexuality as the real cause of clerical sex abuse.

The moment came after one of the talks he gave during a Nov. 6-8 conference on abuse prevention in Latin America organized by the interdisciplinary center for child protection of Mexico’s Pontifical University, CEPROME.

In an interview following the event, he explained that he was a bit under the weather so he was off his game somewhat, however, he stood by the core of his response to the priest: “There are things that you can repeat over and over again and people don’t get it. As I said in my response to him, it’s the same when people repeat over and over again that it is celibacy that causes the abuse.”

“You can quote whatever scientific report and government report out there stating that it is not the case, but people still think so,” Zollner said.

Some people continue to insist that the root cause for clerical sex abuse is either celibacy or homosexuality, but having reviewed the evidence, the priest – who also heads the Center for Child Protection at Rome’s Gregorian University – believes both of these ideas demonstrate that “people ask for simple answers to very complex problems, and they cling to a certain kind of idea simply because it seems to explain very easily where the problem is and how you can get rid of it.”

Speaking with Crux after the conference, Zollner explained that one problem most people in the West have, above all in the U.S., is that they put too much faith in laws and their capacity to fix things overnight, when the reality shows time and time again that just because a law has been written and enacted, it does not change behavior in a vacuum. Education and changing the culture are necessary as well.

They expect that “by narrowing down the problem to certain issues and giving a clear instruction on a more or less legal level or a norm level, you get rid of the problem, and this does not correspond to reality, certainly not in regard to abuse because we have laws in the Church. We have commandments.”

Yet, simply saying “we just need to follow Church teaching” isn’t enough. If it were he wouldn’t have to ask, “Why is it that people and priests don’t do it?”

Crux spoke with Zollner Nov. 9, after the close of the CEPROME seminar.

Crux: First of all, what did you think about the conference?

Zollner: I think it’s pretty much amazing to see almost 500 people here from almost all countries in Latin America.

You see all kinds of people, archbishops, bishops, provincials, rectors of seminaries, people in charge of safeguarding, psychologists, teachers – highly qualified people. Latin America has, compared to other regions of the world, surely, personnel resources and competent people. And what is really amazing is to see that those who came here from as far as Chile or Argentina expressed clearly that they are very much interested in the issue, that they want to do whatever they can in their field for a safer church, and they want to learn.

And there’s also a sense of, I believe, “we need to connect.” Which is obviously easier in a continent that speaks mainly one language with the huge exception of Brazil, but even from Brazil there were some people here. So that makes things easier on this side.

For the first time since I’ve known you, you lost your temper, which happened when the priest asked about homosexuality being the real cause of abuse. I am sure it’s not the first time you’ve been asked that. How do you deal with that being asked time after time despite the evidence?

First of all, I am sick still so I was not in the best of my capacities …

There are things that you can repeat over and over again and people don’t get it. As I said in my response to him it’s the same when people repeat over and over again that it is celibacy that causes the abuse, you can quote whatever scientific report and government report out there stating that it is not the case, but people still think so and journalists still ask the very same question over and over again [about celibacy being the cause of abuse]. And yes, there’s a certain small, but very fierce part of people who think that homosexuality causes abusive behavior, which if you think a little bit is pretty much nonsense, but people stick to that.

But the deeper question – this is where I should have gone to with my reaction to him – is that people cling to simple answers to complex problems and they hang on to a certain kind of idea simply because it seems to explain very easily where the problem is and how you can get rid of it.

Individual human beings are very, very complex beings and if you put them in a society, in a church, in a community, combining their personal dynamics with all kinds of relationships, then it gets even more complex.

Is it just Western press that thinks it is about celibacy?

To be true, almost only the Western press is interested in the issue. I mean to say that this isn’t a constant priority for media in other parts of the world.

Interested in the issue of celibacy or protecting children?

I mean the whole abuse crisis is not really a huge issue in the public in Africa, in Asia or Oceania, whatever you have. I mean it’s in the Americas and in Europe where the press is continually interested…you saw that in the meeting of the church leaders on child protection in February. How many African journalists were sitting in the press briefings? None. How many Asians were there? 3 or 4. And the rest was all U.S. and Western and Central Europe, some from Latin America and Southern Europe.

So Latin America is basically at the same place with the rest of the western world?

At least some countries: Chile, Mexico, less so in Peru, Argentina and Colombia. That’s it.

Now in regards to blaming abuse on celibacy/homosexuality…is it partly denial? Just get rid of one thing and it’s solved?

First, that idea goes like “let us find an easy solution and a clear strategy.” Thus you identify either homosexuals or celibates as the core of the problem, and you get rid of them and then the problem is over. This is wishful thinking.

Secondly, it is something that I believe is something that is true of some of the western cultures; i.e. you believe that by narrowing down the problem to certain issues and giving a clear instruction on an instructional and legal or norm level, you get rid of the problem. This does not correspond to reality, certainly not in regard to abuse because we have laws in the Church, we have the Commandments, we have the Gospel. So just repeat it and do it. Why do we need further education? We just need to believe in the Commandments, we just need to follow Church teaching – then all is fine.

However, all kinds of people, also priests, simply don’t do it. They commit sins and crimes. So, I would say especially people who believe in the directly effective power of law , there’s a belief that by tweaking the law more and more you get to the minute details of the problem and ultimately you get rid of it altogether. But this is not the case. In fact we have the laws to deal with abuse and its cover-up that are necessary in the Church. This was also true decades ago. We have the Commandments. How come that priests simply didn’t do what the Gospel tells us to do: To protect the little ones? So on the whole question why do we need another type of theology?

The question in theology is for example how do we understand priesthood in today’s world and can such a new understanding help priests and others to live up better to the Gospel’s message. This has always been the challenge of theology, for almost 2,000 years.

You’ve done some thinking on what this new understanding of the priesthood would be like?

Theology would need to think anew for example about when a priest is ordained what is he ordained for? How can we understand priesthood vis-à-vis society and its concerns today? The Church has developed over the last 200 years, and priesthood in almost all parts of the world has changed its configuration. In many parts the sacred space or aura around priests is gone because of secularization and other developments and of course through the questioning of authority, including spiritual and religious authority, but this is true for any kind of authority.

It’s about going back to the roots, i.e. it is all about how can priests be witnesses to Jesus Christ with the people with whom they live, with whom they share their context and culture and how can they accompany people so that they discover God’s presence, God’s grace and God’s redemptive power in those circumstances in which they live? Over the last I would say 200 years the Church has struggled with the relationship between Church and faith and the “world,” and this because after the Enlightenment, French Revolution, secularization in Europe … it went into a counter-position.

The Church fought back against those developments including the foundation of national states in Europe that happened in the 19th century and in Latin America as well. That was seen as a threat to the Church. So how do we understand being Christians in this world? The answer to that has theological consequences and underpinnings.

How do we understand what is going on in our society when we look at it with the eyes of faith: Economy, politics, the whole environmental issues, human rights issues, refugees…whatever you have. How can we find a way today of being Christians in the world but not of the world? And I think we are really struggling still since 200 years with the definition of where we are and what we can say, what we shouldn’t say, where we need to speak up and where we just need to learn from others.

I mean science is another example. The Church has first fought evolution theory, psychoanalysis — and more — over the last 150 years. There is no way to simply repress or deny something that human reason can discover. We can appreciate God’s creation as it is, as the Letter to the Romans says. Yes, we need to differentiate and help people find their way in a very confusing world, and that is where I would see the Church and the priest as a representative of that searching and finding God in all things, as St. Ignatius would say. The priest as a pathfinder who himself is on that journey. But for that to come true again he needs to give up positions and privileges that have developed over the last centuries, and here we come to theological, canonical and practical questions. That is, for example, is it necessarily a priest who is a leader of the parish and is that then connected to all kinds of power: financial, organizational, whatever you have? No, it is not.

Cardinal Oswald Gracias said it in the recent synod, and in some parts of the world it has been sanctioned, that for example women are the organizational leaders of a parish community. But then the priest is free for then what is his core vocation that he is a witness to Jesus Christ in what he does and how he is and in how he can be available to people.

Many priests in most parts of the world nowadays with a shrinking number of parishes and an extension of their responsibilities hardly meet any of faithful for a one-to-one talk of any kind, a pastoral encounter or just sharing day to day things. So in some areas they are not in touch with the normal life of real people. And you see that because of this then their behavior and preaching gets detached from reality.

The way we express our religious thinking and our theology with regard to reality exposes a lack of understanding to where people are in their lives and their questions about good living. We don’t speak their language anymore. We talk a language that people very often simply don’t understand if they aren’t already inside the inner circle. It has become an insular language. We use words that people don’t use nor understand. So we are challenged to find another way to communicate what our faith is all about.

Doing Catholic theology has always meant – from the Church Fathers through Thomas Aquinas to our times – trying to explain the essentials of faith within the necessary limits of our current understanding and relating that to the context so that people could find reason to believe in the God of Jesus Christ.

Follow Shannon Levitt on Twitter: @ShannonLevitt6

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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