ROME— A leading Catholic expert on the fight against child sexual abuse says Pope Francis has just fired a shot across the bow to Catholic bishops across the world, the substance of which is, “They have to follow the rules.”

The pontiff recently issued a legal document laying out a process for removing bishops who are negligent in responding to abuse allegations. German Jesuit Father Hans Zollner said that while it “doesn’t clarify everything,” it nonetheless “gives a clear signal to bishops: they have to follow the rules.”

Zollner, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors created by Francis in 2014, is academic vice-rector of the Jesuit-run Gregorian University in Rome and head of its Institute of Psychology, home of the “Center for Child Protection,” which runs a one-of-a-kind seminar on preventing and responding to sexual abuse.

Next Tuesday, the first 19 students in the “Safeguarding of Minors” program will graduate, and the quota for next year’s course is already full.

Of the new graduates, 11 come from African countries, a continent where, according to Zollner, “sensitivity for the issue of safeguarding children’s rights is very underdeveloped,” and not only within the Church but in society at large.

Zollner told Crux that “global awareness” about sexual abuse of minors is growing, while cautioning there’s “a long way to go to put an end to this evil, which will continue for as long as human beings exist.”

Speaking of his decades-old experience fighting clerical sexual abuse, he admitted to being “frustrated” at the fact that in some Eastern European countries, as well as parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America, there are still priests who see this as a “Western problem.”

“That’s frustrating, because this is an obvious denial of reality by people who should know better,” he said.

Crux spoke with Zollner on June 7, at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University. What follows are excerpts from that conversation.

Crux: What’s the importance of a course like the one offered by the Gregorian on safeguarding minors?

Zollner: It prepares safeguarding officers for bishops’ conferences, associations of religious, dioceses and congregations, especially in those countries where there are no structures and no personnel.

It might sound strange to North Americans and Western Europeans, but if you look around the globe, it’s only a few countries that have a high standard of measures in place, not only on paper. That’s true for society at large as well as for the Church.

We think we’ll take 18 students each year, a maximum of 20. We had 19 this year. Six received scholarships from the [Vatican’s] Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, which shows that there’s a focused interest in forming people in the mission countries.

But there were also people from other African countries, beyond the ones chosen by the Congregation. We hope we can have more people from Eastern Europe, because there’s also almost nothing in place there, and from Asia and Latin America. But the focus for the moment is clearly Africa.

Why Africa?

Because the awareness-building and the sensitivity for the issue of safeguarding children’s rights is very underdeveloped. Some weeks ago I spoke to an important African political leader, and she said that one of the main focuses for African governments is engaging the fight against child marriage.

In almost all constitutions in African countries you have the minimum age for contracting marriage at 18, but in fact, girls continue to be married at 12. So what is on paper and what is happening is, sometimes, completely different. We need to work mid- and long-term to generate a change of attitude.

You can have courses and get certificates, but in the end what matters is how much this really changes practice.

There are 40 million people enslaved today, many of whom are children, so one can understand there are places where children’s rights aren’t yet respected …

Yes. And then there’s the whole question of migration, that’s come into focus in Europe. From what we know, there’s not a single woman or child who’s not abused during the migration process, during their status as refugee or while they are on the run.

If you take all the war situations, the catastrophes, the poverty in the countries where they come from, where they’re already traumatized, and add all the trauma they go through on their way to Europe, such as abandoning their homelands, losing one or several family members, and then they’re sexually abused on their way to Europe, you have millions of people deeply traumatized.

Pope Francis has released a motu proprio laying out a procedure for removing bishops and superiors who drop the ball on abuse complaints. Was this document necessary?

It was necessary, because it makes it crystal clear that the procedures that already exist must be put into practice.

It brings to the attention of the world community, the Church community and all those responsible in the Church, explicitly and very seriously, that bishops must be held responsible for their actions or inaction, and that there are measures to prosecute negligence by a bishop as well as by an abbot or a major superior of an order or congregation.

Was the motu proprio recommended by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors?

We suggested to the Holy Father to consider a procedure for prosecution of bishops in cases of negligence in office, denial, and also cases of moving a perpetrator from one parish to another.

What has been spelled out clearly is that diligence may be lacking even “without grave moral culpability” on the part of the bishop, and that for removal from office, in the case of abuse of minors, “it is sufficient for the lack of diligence to be grave,” not “very grave” as in other cases.

We will see how the [Vatican] congregations that receive allegations, [meaning the Congregations for] Bishops, Evangelization of Peoples, Oriental Churches, and Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, deal with this and then forward it to the college of legal experts that will help Francis to judge if the allegations are substantiated.

I believe this is a very important step. It doesn’t clarify everything, but it gives a clear signal to bishops: they have to follow the rules.

I also believe the motu proprio will help speed up decisions about the procedures, such as who would bring in the complaint, who would be the defendant, what are the possibilities of appealing the rulings.

It shows a commitment from Francis to accountability?

Certainly. He has a line that began very early after his election, and continues with more than what is perceived on a global level. Every now and then he encourages those who work on the protection of minors and expresses very strong words about those who abuse minors and those who cover up abuse. He mentions safeguarding organizations, and he’s aware of what we do here in the Centre for Child Protection.

What people don’t realize is that for him, as for many people from the Southern hemisphere, sexual abuse is a terrible thing but there are other violations of the rights of children that for people in those countries are also very relevant: war, child soldiers, child poverty, child trafficking.

For people in those countries, this is immediately clear when they talk about child sexual abuse: it’s one of many violations of children’s rights.

The problem of clerical sexual abuse has been making headlines for three decades. How frustrating is it that there still are people in the Church who need to be reminded that this is real?

I just came back from a trip to Lithuania and Latvia, where I met with the local bishops. You have some priests who still say, “This is a Western problem, it has never happened here.” That’s frustrating, because this is an obvious denial of reality by people who should know better.

I find myself astounded: how is it possible that there are still people who deny this?

But at the same time, as a psychologist and a psychotherapist, I see that these are defense mechanisms. You might see in the depth of your heart that there are crimes committed by clergy, but you won’t talk about it because of your own shame. You think that you cannot hurt your mother, the Church.

Let’s just talk about central-eastern Europe, where you still have good portions of the clergy who deny that this is a problem. For over 50 years, the Church was the only institution that gave some kind of freedom, where one felt at home and not persecuted or spied on.

Many of those priests were ordained clandestinely, and they owe all their personal development to the Church and to their faith. So accepting that there’s a small number of priests who have committed terrible crimes and sins, and admitting and acknowledging the suffering of survivors, brings about a huge inner conflict.

Yet, I travel a lot and I perceive that globally we’re at a level of consciousness where it becomes more and more difficult for people to deny that there’s a huge issue.

That is also true for African students with whom I speak. Or if you listen to some bishops, also those who came here four years ago for the symposium, some came here and said this is “a Western problem” when they arrived.

Three days later, after having listened to Marie Collins [a survivor of clerical sexual abuse and member of the Commission for the Protection of Minors], and having listened to other bishops from around the world, they realized that this is not only a Western problem, but that they too have to look into their own backyards.

A few minutes ago I met a person from Bosnia Herzegovina, who is trained to work on this issue, and is willing to do so in this country where the situation for the Church is very delicate – Croatians vs Bosnians, Catholics and Muslims, and so on. Talking in that situation about a source of huge harm for survivors and for the image of the Church is not easy.

If you talk about India, the Indian bishops were very reluctant to put their guidelines online, because what would happen is that some Hindu nationalists would immediately point the finger and say, “Look at those Catholics, what terrible things they do.”

By pointing the finger, they consciously avoid looking at what is done not only by Hindu priests but by Indian society at large, which is perhaps one of the most affected and infected by sexual abuse of minors.

Is there a growing global awareness within the Church of the problem of child sexual abuse?

Yes. You see it in Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Ghana, Ecuador, Kenya … the Church in those areas is a frontrunner. In these countries, the Church is the one institution that is talking about it publicly and pushing hard in the case of child protection.

In India, Catholic institutions do a lot more for the protection of girls’ rights than any other institutions do, probably even the state.

Global awareness is growing, but we still have a long way to go to put an end to this evil, that will continue for as long as human beings exist.