ROME – Probably the most influential institute on the issue of sexual abuse in the Church is the Centre for Child Protection at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University.

The president of the center, Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, is a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, created by Pope Francis in 2014 to advise him on child protection policies.

The center works closely with the Vatican on developing polices to deal with sexual abuse and hosts numerous workshops for Church leaders from around the world.

Which is why Dalla parte dei piccoli [“On the side of the small ones”] is sure to be discussed when it’s released in May.

The book is by Angela Rinaldi, a 28-year-old Italian research assistant at the Center for Child Protection, and she argues the problem of sexual abuse in the Church “is a question of abuse of power.”

Rinaldi has worked at the CCP since 2014 and is also a doctoral candidate at the Gregorian focusing on policies for unaccompanied minors who were forced to migrate to Italy.

After studying the abuse scandals of the past few decades, she says that a misuse of power can be identified both in the person of sexual abusers, who manipulate and insult the victims, and in the Church as an institution, for trying first to protect its image instead of caring for those who have suffered abuse.

For Rinaldi, the adoption of universal rules to address abuse cases by Pope Benedict XVI was a game-changer. She also recognizes the steps Pope Francis has taken, such as the creation of the Pontifical Commission for Protection of Minors.

However, the impatient way he first responded to a recent crisis in Chile is, for her, a lesson for the future.

“The Church must build trust, responsibility, accountability. Pope Francis preaches a responsible Church that admits its mistakes,” she told Crux.

Below are the excerpts of her conversation with Filipe Domingues.

How did the idea of writing this book come about?

For my Master’s thesis I decided to write about child abuse. My moderator, Father Rocco D’Ambrosio, was happy with the result and we pushed for this work to be published. It is not experimental, but a reflective study. In Italy, publications are mainly about mapping the episodes, the small scandals that have emerged in the country. I have been collaborating with the Center for Child Protection since 2013 and, therefore, for some years now I have been dealing with the subject of child abuse. Let’s say that, after a university career at La Sapienza University, where I graduated in Developmental Sciences and International Cooperation, I found myself at an intersecting point: The topic of protection and safety of minors, and the work at the CCP.

Yours is an ethical analysis of the problem?

The reflection of the book is ethics, more than anything else. We speak of a social phenomenon that does not only concern the Church, but also affects the Church. There are several authors who think that the issue of child abuse should be studied regarding the abuse of power, even before it is seen from a sexual or physical point of view, or even simply as a moral issue.

This is common ground for all the experiences out there. Another ethical question concerns the formation of priests. Statistically, most cases occurred in the years 1950-80. In the 2000s, most cases that have come to light are concerning years past. The phenomenon has followed a trend, with a decreasing number of cases. It is clear that after a series of coverups by Church authorities, who tried to make it go away, the scandal broke in Boston and, from there, the issue opened up all over the world.

You make a critique of how the Church has handled sex abuse cases. But, at the same time, you recognize the steps taken recently, right?

Yes. Precisely because it is an ethical question, it goes beyond any bias. It is impossible to judge a phenomenon starting from preconceptions. When we talk about violence against minors, we talk about the most vulnerable part of society. But the priest, a man of God, is also a human being. He has a sexual identity, like all of us. There are distortions in public opinion: Since the priest should not abuse, all priests might be considered guilty or potential abusers. This negative prejudice nullifies the analysis. I would like to talk about the problem without too much distortion, departing from principles.

But you have critiqued the abuse of power by the Church…

The phenomenon is there and if the Church, especially up to the 2000s, has responded in an incorrect way with respect to prevention or resolution of the problem, we must point this out. At the same time, we must keep in mind the position of other priests, and of the people of God, because not all are abusers in the Church, not all are pedophiles, ephebophiles, and so on. Criticism must emerge constructively, to ensure, at least, that the problem is tackled in the right way.

Since when can we say that the Church has changed its response? Is it the ‘Spotlight’ scandal?

I’m not sure… soon after Spotlight, the scandal of the Legionaries of Christ came out. It was then that a reaction began, but, in my opinion, the most important change came with Pope Benedict XVI, when, under his pontificate, the rules on delicta graviora were updated [the most serious crimes in the celebration of the sacraments or against morality]. They were already there with John Paul II, but Pope Benedict took a line that became irreversible.

Until 2010, the Church’s reaction was aimed at solving the problems of specific countries. Since then, with the new rules and Benedict’s letter to the people of Ireland, it has truly become a universal response. This becomes apparent, also, from the letter to the episcopal conferences that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote, to which not all the conferences have yet responded. The initiator of the “zero tolerance” policy was Pope Benedict, something that often does not reflect in public opinion.

Your book says that much of the Church’s problem was protecting the image of the institution before the abuse victims. Is this your biggest criticism?

Yes. This is fundamental: The duality between the attitude in defending the name of the Church and defending the victim. Indeed, at the Center for Child Protection, this fits into the context of prevention. First of all, if we speak ethically, we must say that the problem of sexual abuse in the Church is a question of abuse of power. The abuser, in that case, commits an abuse which is spiritual, pastoral, and institutional. And then there is the abuse committed by the whole ecclesiastical institution, because, in the person of the priest, the abused person sees the Church. Before the physical abuse, there is an abuse of power.

So, the root of the problem, for you, is the abuse of power?

What I want to say is that there is an abuse that comes even before the sexual abuse, which is the misuse of power by the abuser and by the institution that covers him up. The abuser should be arrested and judged not only by an ecclesiastical court but also by the civil court.

Why does this problem cause scandal? It must. If Christ had avoided leaving the Cross behind to be saved by Pontius Pilate – whom, in a certain sense, had the power to do so – it is because he wanted to defend the truth, the Kingdom of God, that is, Himself. The Church represents Christ in the world. If, at the moment when an abuse is denounced, she covers up for the abuser or even pays the victims for their silence, it means that she puts the ‘raison d’état’ before the abuse, before the person.

Our religion is beautiful because it is human. When you take away the person, you remove Christ from it. If Christ vanishes, the Christian message disappears, too.

Is this about a wrong conception of power?

Definitely. If you conceive the status of the priest as one who gives you a law that you must respect, but without understanding its meaning, then the abuse of power will happen for sure. In the case of sexual abuse there is also manipulation by the abuser when he says “don’t worry, stay calm” to the victim.

If in Catholic culture you have been accustomed to respecting the parish priest just because he is a parish priest, or to obey the priest just because of his position, when he tells a young man “let’s do certain things, you’ll see that God will not mind,” it is impossible to say no. And this parish priest conceives his position in a wrong way, as well. Formation is a deterrent in this case. In ethical terms, human formation is what is lacking.

Ordinary people often relate the problem of abuses with priestly celibacy. According to your book, this is not a fair association.

So many people have told me, “it is good for priests to get married because at least then they release their sexuality in the marital relationship.” In reality, no. Celibacy is a gift, says the Church. At that point, as such it must be treated and, therefore, we must educate the person who accepts this renunciation, which is celibacy. We must train this person until he succeeds in accepting it in a positive way. Everyone’s life is made up of renunciations. Humanely well-trained, celibate people can safely overcome this renunciation of having sexual relations with other people.

You wrote that the majority of abusers are not celibates…

According to John Jay College (in New York), the most prominent cases of sexual abuse in the United States have come out of sports groups, other churches where pastors are allowed to marry… the Catholic Church, although stained by this crime and sin, remains in many places one of the safest environments for minors. Thus, it is a prejudice to say that celibacy hinders the maturation of sexuality in its most natural form. It is something that is distorted in the view of the public.

So, how should priests be formed?

The basis is human formation. Basically, this means to form the whole person. To embrace spiritual, academic, apostolic, psychological formation, and so on. In a certain sense, it is the fact that he rediscovers in himself the image of God. Permanent human formation allows priests to acquire all the knowledge and cultivate the interior life needed to reflect on their own life, nature and happiness.

This way, one would avoid creating conceptions of power that would end up in distorted relationships. Also, seminaries where there is a solid policy for selecting candidates, rooted in ethical terms, manage to avoid ‘future priests’ that will never become priests or that, if they do, will do damage. The psychological accompaniment is fundamental for those who have doubts in their vocation, besides the spiritual one.

How do you view the behavior of Pope Francis? He created the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, but, in the case of Chile, he recognizes that he was wrong in his first response to the problem.

The creation of the Commission is a strong sign. From 2014 to this day they really have worked a lot. It is a strong sign because it undergirds the fact that the Church’s response is universal. And now the Commission is more universal than before.

There is more diversity among its representatives, and every reality is different. However, one could say that Pope Francis is a man too, and, as so, he makes mistakes. Thank God we have a pope who admits this. To speak in such a direct way ‘I had not been well informed’ [on the cases in Chile] makes it clear that he goes one way and many in the Church go another. There might be some who are working against him.

It is also true that Francis has harshly criticized abusers…

It is as if he had taken part in the scope of Benedict’s ‘zero tolerance’ approach and, in this sense, we can see the institutional Pope Francis. However, at the same time, in the Chilean case, the misuse of office on the part of the local Church is evident. And there, perhaps, the pope’s less formal face appears somewhat large.

You say that, in this case, he was less institutional in the response. Is that a problem?

Clearly, people get a different message from what he actually thinks, that is in a different direction to which he actually goes. If he talks about zero tolerance and then says ‘there is no proof’ of a certain abuse, people remain confused. The Church must build trust, responsibility, accountability. He preaches a responsible Church that admits its mistakes. I can say that, in general, the posture of Pope Francis is positive. Apart from the question of Chile, people perceive that he is tough and firm on ‘zero tolerance.’ It is understood from the outside that he is strict about it.

What is missing from the Church, then?

Working with victims to restore faith, to restore their relationship with God, that is for sure.

However, we must also work with the abusers, in psychological, human, spiritual terms, to avoid future abuse. It is paradoxical, but there certainly are sinners in the Church. The work that needs to be done with the victim is different from what you should do with the abuser. It is not a useful solution to lock the abuser in a convent or leave him there alone, until he dies. And then? The Church must continue to have a self-reflection about this.