Expert says Vatican botched response to child porn suspicions about envoy

Expert says Vatican botched response to child porn suspicions about envoy

Expert says Vatican botched response to child porn suspicions about envoy

Father Hans Zollner talks during an interview with the Associated Press in Rome, Monday, Sept. 12, 2016. (Credit: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia.)

German Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, who leads a child protection center at a Roman university and serves on a papal commission advising Francis on reform, says the Vatican should have been more transparent about recent reports that an envoy at the papal embassy in Washington, D.C., is part of an investigation for possible involvement in child pornography, seeing it as part of an going struggle to be more "up-front."

ROME – Arguably the Catholic Church’s leading expert in the fight against child sexual abuse believes the Vatican dropped the ball on a recent case in which a diplomat at the papal embassy in Washington, D.C., was flagged as a possible suspect in a child pornography investigation, saying, “This should have been handled differently.”

“I really don’t understand this type of reaction [from the Vatican], and I’m pretty sure the American bishops were quite upset about how it was handled,” said German Jesuit Father Hans Zollner.

Zollner heads the Centre for Child Protection at Rome’s Gregorian University and is also a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, a body created by Pope Francis to advise him on the reform effort and led by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston.

Zollner called the way the recent case has been handled “tragic” and “unprofessional.”

“The problem isn’t that the diplomat was called back, because every government does the same thing normally, but we should have explained it differently,” he said. “We should have at least clarified the basics, and it doesn’t seem this has happened.”

“I’m pretty sure that, first of all, the local church should have been involved. That doesn’t seem to have been the case,” Zollner said.

“A situation has been created that’s bad for all parties,” he said. “We now have a possible suspect, and some people think that Church leadership, meaning in this case the Holy See, or sections of the Secretariat of State, are labeled as defensive and following the old model of cover-up.”

“In this age of social media communication and transparency, you need to be up-front,” he said. “This is not the culture yet in many corners of the Church, not only in the Vatican but in many countries where this is not the style in which uncomfortable, difficult situations are presented.”

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Zollner made the comments in an interview with “The Crux of the Matter,” Crux’s weekly radio program on The Catholic Channel, Sirius XM 129, on Oct. 25.

Zollner also spoke about a recent meeting between Pope Francis and members of the commission, in which the pontiff reiterated his commitment to a “zero tolerance” stance on abuse and vowed that he’d never again pardon an offender in the sense of restoring him to ministry.

Zollner said one line in particular from that meeting struck him as impressive.

“He said, ‘I have learned so much from listening to victims’,” Zollner said.

“Specifically, he referred to the day in July 2014 when he met two English, two Irish and two German survivors, each one for about 45 minutes. They were very different people, very different stories, and very different ways of coping with the abuse committed by clergy…Implicitly, he told us those meetings changed his thinking. He said he’s very clear about what we need to do,” Zollner said.

In terms of the fight for reform today, he said, the problem isn’t “active resistance” anymore, but simple slowness to change.

“Until you realize that this is something we owe to all people who have been so terribly harmed by clergy, you don’t really feel the need to engage continuously with perseverance,” he said.

Zollner will lead a major upcoming conference at the Gregorian University titled “Child Dignity in the Digital World” Oct. 3-6, bringing together politicians, internet entrepreneurs, law enforcement and NGOs to discuss keeping children safe online.

The following are excerpts from his interview with Crux, which was conducted by John Allen and Claire Giangravé.

Crux: You just finished the latest plenary meeting of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Can you tell us something about how that went?

Zollner: We finished the plenary session yesterday [Sunday, Oct. 24]. All last week, we had meetings of the various working groups. We wrapped up our work, because the first [five-year] mandate of this group will come to an end, and this will have been our last plenary session.

We produced a report of the Holy Father, and we were received in an audience last Thursday. We presented to Pope Francis all our work, our achievements, over the last years, and we discussed the future structure. We’ll send in names, proposals, for the future membership very soon. That’s where we are at the moment.

The pope spoke fairly strongly during the meeting with the commission about the ‘zero tolerance’ policy on child sexual abuse. Do you think that’s been effective? Does the rhetoric match the reality?

I think Pope Benedict as well as Pope Francis has very much underlined zero tolerance for abuse in the Church, and all the legal, canonical norms that have been implemented since 2002 and revised in 2010, plus the recent developments with Pope Francis, show that this pope, like the previous one, are really determined in this fight against abuse.

But, you also have to realize that the Catholic Church is not a multi-national corporation in which the CEO presses a button and then everybody lines up. As you’ve seen, as you’ve heard lately in the news, there are people who are very much even in opposition to the pope [on many things].

Concerning the fight against sex abuse, if [abuse] happens now, I think the response is very strong. We’ve got a very good commitment on many sides, though not equally around the world. But the pope, the heads of the dicasteries, the offices of the Vatican, and many bishops’ conferences have done their homework. They’ve sent in their [anti-abuse] guidelines. They have spelled out how to deal with perpetrators, how to listen to victims. But we’re talking here about a generational task in changing a culture that used to be one of negligence and cover-up, so you don’t change that in a week, a month, or a year. We’ve made progress, but I think there’s much to do.

You have a major conference coming up at the Centre for Child Protection at the Gregorian University. What’s it about, and what do you hope will result from it?

We start on Oct. 3 in the evening, and the title is “Child Dignity in the Digital World.” We’ll have two full days of conferences and workshop, and then on the last day, Oct. 6, we’ll be received by Pope Francis and we’ll hand over to him a declaration.

You have lots of discussion on the use and the abuse of the internet, and within the internet. Our special interest in setting up this congress is that we try to bring together the top-notch scientists, leaders in the internet companies, people from governments and NGOs, from UNICEF and Interpol, law enforcement, as well as religions, to discuss what we can do to ensure that young people are better protected on the internet.

The unique feature is that while we’ll listen to the best-informed people around the globe, we also want these people to be able to talk to each other and come up with something – not only as a declaration of intention to do something better, but also as some concrete steps and proposals for governments, internet companies, all those who are responsible for what’s online and what can happen to young people and vulnerable adults.

While we’re talking about the internet, one recent story that’s raised questions about the Church and child protection involves a situation at the papal embassy in Washington, D.C., where a Vatican diplomat was recalled to Rome after American authorities identified him as part of an investigation into possible possession of child pornography. It’s been easy for some people to see that situation in terms of a cover-up. What would you say to people tempted to see it that way?

I can fully understand what these people think, based on what’s been written. I really don’t understand this type of reaction [from the Vatican], and I’m pretty sure the American bishops were quite upset about how it was handled. The problem isn’t that the diplomat was called back, because every government does the same thing normally, but we should have explained it differently. We should have at least clarified the basics, and it doesn’t seem this has happened. I believe this should have been handled differently.

All these events, as tragically and unprofessionally as they’re handled, give us an opportunity to better things. I’m pretty sure that this particular case, which comes just a few days before our conference takes place, gives an opportunity to rethink fundamental questions: How do we deal with this? How do we deal with it publicly, and how do we cooperate in a more straight-forward way with law enforcement in a specific country?

You said this should have been handled differently. What would that have looked like? What should people have been told when this first came to light?

I don’t know the details, but I’m pretty sure that, first of all, the local church should have been involved. That doesn’t seem to have been the case, and I believe Cardinal [Daniel] DiNardo [President of the U.S. bishops’ conference] more or less said that. Then, they should have asked for that evidence that was produced that caused this person to be defined as a possible suspect. Since we don’t know that, a situation has been created that’s bad for all parties. We now have a possible suspect, and some people think that Church leadership, meaning in this case the Holy See, or sections of the Secretariat of State, are labeled as defensive and following the old model of cover-up. The bishops in America are pretty much, I think, waiting for a response as to how this could have happened.

I believe that a statement should have been issued, and the name of the person should have been given because now we have the situation that the name has been published in the New York Times and elsewhere, but not acknowledged by the Church. In this age of social media communication and transparency, you need to be up-front. This is not the culture yet in many corners of the Church, not only in the Vatican but in many countries where this is not the style in which uncomfortable, difficult situations are presented.

Honestly, this is nothing specifically to do with the Church. I’ve just come back from Fiji, for example, where rape is the most common crime, but nobody talks about it because it’s so shameful. Our culture, the American and Central European, would certainly opt for a quite different stance and procedure, and that’s what we need to train people for.

Where do you think Pope Francis’s own commitment to this issue comes from?

We met the pope as a pontifical commission for about an hour on Thursday, where we could present our own proposals and report, and then he spoke to us off-the-cuff. One sentence there really impressed me. He said, ‘I have learned so much from listening to victims.’ Specifically, he referred to the day in July 2014 when he met two English, two Irish and two German survivors, each one for about 45 minutes. They were very different people, very different stories, and very different ways of coping with the abuse committed by clergy.

Implicitly, he told us those meetings changed his thinking. He said he’s very clear about what we need to do. He said I’ve learned how we need to deal with this. That’s an example for all Church personnel, all Church leaders, and also all faithful. For my part, it gives me all the motivation to continue this work despite all the negligence and passive resistance I sometimes find. I mean, I don’t encounter any real active resistance on this, it’s more just the old way to do things and a certain habitual, immediate defensive reaction.

Until you realize that this is something we owe to all people who have been so terribly harmed by clergy, you don’t really feel the need to engage continuously with perseverance. That’s the motivation we look for, and I see this happening. I’ve travelled now to 50 countries on six continents, and I see it growing. But it will not just magically change things.

The pope also said he learned something, that pardoning those found guilty of sexual abuse doesn’t work and he vowed not to do it again. Is that also an impulse in the right direction?

It’s encouraged us, the commission, it encourages us here at the Centre for Child Protection at the Gregorian, and it encourages everybody who works in the Church in this field.

I was in Australia four weeks ago, and the Church there is really under huge pressure because of the Royal Commission on Institutional Sexual Abuse and the case against Cardinal [George] Pell that’s pending. The Holy Father, from the creation of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, has really helped us, because it’s given visibility to this issue. The pope repeatedly speaks about it … I’m not sure how many other topics there are that he’s spoken about so prominently and clearly.

I’m pretty sure this [the pope’s leadership] doesn’t penetrate immediately into a long-standing clerical culture of caring first and foremost for one’s own neighbors, meaning feeling that priests have to be defended and so forth. That doesn’t immediately translate. But, more and more bishops, more and more provincials, and more and more other responsible parties in the Church understand that the first who have to be listened to are victims. All who have harmed young people in such a horrific way need to be punished, and we need to continue in that line.

On the legal side, the canonical side, this is all very clear. Church procedures now are defined, there’s nothing to explain away. Every kind of moving around people is now punishable, since the pope a little over a year ago issued a document called ‘Like a Loving Mother,’ in which guidelines for bishops’ accountability are laid out.

What’s been missing up to now is concrete implementation, and we’ve discussed this at the commission meeting. Cardinal [Sean] O’Malley, who is the president of our commission, certainly is a champion of pushing forward in the direction of defining, clarifying, and also implementing what bishops’ accountability means.

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