ROME — German Jesuit Father Hans Zollner is widely recognized as one of the Catholic Church’s leading experts on the fight against child sexual abuse. Zollner heads the Centre for Child Protection at Rome’s Jesuit-run Gregorian University and is a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

Recently, Crux sat down with Zollner to discuss the sexual abuse crisis playing out in the Church in Chile, and how to understand the dynamics that made the crisis possible.

Among other points, Zollner stressed that at bottom, sexual abuse is not a “liberal v. conservative” issue, while adding that the clericalist attitudes which can underlie abuse sometimes, as in the Chilean case, flourish best in a traditional, strongly conservative milieu.

“What we’ve seen in the Karadima case especially is a very moralistic approach, which bizarrely, is then combined with an absolutely immoral approach to people,” he said. “Some of those who purport to defend the Church and her doctrine behave in a blatantly contradictory way, thereby destroying the credibility of the Church.”

“Ultimately, for me the sexual abuse issue has to do with the question, who are we as a Church?” Zollner said.

The following is a transcript of Crux’s conversation with Zollner, which was conducted in his office at the Gregorian University.

Crux: How should we understand the forces at work in situations such as Chile?

Zollner: If you refer to the problem of cover-up of abuse, it’s about how much importance, or how high in my value system, is the safeguarding of minors, the protection of children and vulnerable people, versus my relationships with confreres, people with whom I’ve studied, or who I’ve known for a long time … maybe people I’ve ordained, if we’re talking about bishops.

We’re talking about the public image of the Church, of my institution, the good name of people who are dear to me, of being seen admitting to the facts of abuse that has been committed by clergy, and possibly admitting that due process has not been followed, either in Church terms or civil terms.

Is it a matter of being too “conservative” or too “liberal”?

For me, this is not a question of conservative vs. liberal. In fact, I find a good number, if you wish, on both sides of that divide, which for me isn’t a divide anyway, or not a helpful one.

I see people on both sides who are very much engaged in and committed to safeguarding, and to doing whatever can be done to do justice to victims. And, I see reluctance on both sides to intervene appropriately, in a timely manner, and consistently when allegations come up and when the contact with the victims is an important point of that whole procedure.

Generally speaking, where the Church has had, and is seen as having, a very strong power in society and in individuals’ lives, it seems from what we know, that the ability and willingness to act on allegations was limited, or very much hampered. The willingness to own the issue was very limited, and the tendency to cover up was very strong. We saw acting in an irresponsible way, like moving people from one parish to another, one diocese to another, one country to another. It’s a fortress mentality, in which one tries to protect oneself, one’s good name.

Can you say more about this fortress mentality?

We don’t have real numbers, but certainly [that attitude] has contributed in formerly closed Catholic milieus such as Boston, in Catholic parishes in Australia, in a country such as Ireland where the Catholic Church was all-powerful. It wasn’t all-powerful in Australia, but it was in the parishes, because the parishes ran schools, kindergarten etc. – all life outside work (and sometimes even that) took place inside that closed Catholic world.

Seemingly, this has contributed to more abuse and more cover-up. Where there has been an openness to due process, to supervision and auditing, there are far fewer problems. I don’t say none, but fewer. Transparency can be very uncomfortable, as we see everywhere, but it brings about positive results.

The fortress mentality is more often found in a conservative environment. What we’ve seen in the [Fernando] Karadima case [in Chile] especially is a very moralistic approach, which bizarrely, is then combined with an absolutely immoral approach to people. This is striking.

Some of those who purport to defend the Church and her doctrine behave in a blatantly contradictory way, thereby destroying the credibility of the Church.

Is the antidote transparency?

We should be talking not only about the past and present, but the future. It’s in the best interests of the Church as an institution, a system, that we are transparent as possible. That will help us to be more credible. Paradoxically, admitting your mistakes makes you more authentic and credible than when you try to hide them. This is a logic that works in the era of social media even more than before, and it’s something we haven’t yet understood.

The pope himself said he made a grave mistake, a mistake of judgment with regard to people and situations. He’s admitted to that, and you see what happens. Normal people on the ground, and even most of your colleagues [in the media], don’t take him to action.

What else is involved?

[The pope’s] analysis of where this comes from is clericalism, understood as you as a priest have absolute power over consciences and lives, and with that holy power with which you are imbued, you can do whatever you wish, you can say whatever you wish, because you are with the Holy Spirit.

That role of the Church in interfering with the personal lives of people in an absolutist way has contributed greatly to abusive behavior of all kinds. At the moment, we see the consequences mostly in Australia and in Ireland, which in my view are the countries where there’s most anger and resentment about the Church.

Bishops can say whatever they wish, like before the Australian or now the Ireland referenda, but then critics will always play that card, ‘You’re telling us about sexual morality? You, with your record?’ We have not found a way to spell out our positive understanding of sexuality. If you asked any person here, on this piazza, what does the Church say about sex, what would they say? It’s always ‘No,’ to everything, and we are not successful to convey our understanding of a wholesome, healthy and sound sexual life.

There was an identification in this [Fernando] Karadima group [in Chile] with this very conservative cult-like approach to spirituality: “We are the pillars of the Church, we will rescue the Church and so forth, from all the attacks from modernism and liberalism.” But it’s not a divide between conservative and liberal. There’s also a liberal clericalism, often found in charismatic leaders who don’t care for boundaries, rules and the like.

Ultimately, for me the sexual abuse issue has to do with the question, who are we as a Church?

What did it mean when Pope Francis told Chile’s bishops to work for a “prophetic Church”?

I understand this call for a prophetic Church as taking seriously, in all aspects, 100 percent, what the Gospel asks us to do. That means not for any reason to feel a sense of entitlement. Jesus calls us priests, if you talk about the apostles and bishops and priests as those who have promised to follow him closely. He calls us to serve and not to be served, he calls us to carry our cross, and not to be those who impose crosses on others.

This is very much in line with what Pope Francis says constantly from the beginning of his papacy. In almost every homily, he goes back to this … he says it to the Curia in his speeches at Christmastime, he says it to every bishop who comes: ‘Who are we meant to be? What are we meant to be?’ We are meant to be with people, listening to people, and that’s not about being conservative or liberal. He says, we need to be consistent in our message, our proclamation, our mission and in our personal lifestyle.

And, you are not the best judge for your own life, your own demeanor. You need to listen … you need to listen to laypeople, you need to listen to fellow priests, and not just those, as we say in Germany, who put honey around your mouth. You need to be honest that you are a human being with limitations, and you don’t know the right answer to everything every single moment – even if you are an ordained and resident bishop.

So, please consult, and please be open to criticism. Ask yourself, how many people around you can, or will, be strong enough to give you reasonable, sensible, evidence-based feedback? That is, feedback according to the criteria of the gain of the Gospel and the cost of the Gospel.

What do you mean, “gain” and “cost”?

We expect that the Gospel brings us gain, and one of the gains is that as a priest, you are in a respected position. But the cost factor is not as present to us. Of course, nobody likes to carry his or her cross, otherwise Our Lord wouldn’t have needed to remind us of it. In life, there is a cross to bear.

So, how much do you really believe in the law of the Gospel, i.e. “Leave yourself, leave all that you have – even your very life – and you will have it back a hundred-fold.” But, there is a condition: We have to be with him in all: in joy and challenge, in his mission and passion, first and foremost for His sake, for being with Him. This is the bottom line of the ongoing conversion we need.

On the Chile case, we’ve spoken about sexual abuse, which we all understand. But what do we mean by abuse of conscience and power? That’s harder to define.

Yeah, it is harder to define. It’s the interference with another person’s spiritual, human and professional journey, in so far as a priest obliges the person to follow exactly his view of it because he thinks and acts as if he was imbued with supernatural power and can tell you that you have to behave in exactly this way, to do it like that, simply on the grounds that he is a minister of the Church: “I’m a priest, and therefore I know better – in everything and also for you!”

It’s as if he said in vocational discernment journeys, “I know what your vocation is, and I know that this is right or wrong, so you have to follow it.” Your own personal discernment is not valuable.

Here Ignatian discernment comes in, which is difficult for some “conservatives” as well as for some “liberals.” It’s an engagement, a very strong commitment, to continue the journey and to distrust (!) your own spontaneous inclinations. Therefore, you consult with somebody, but the accompanier is not meant to dictate to you anything.

Ignatius says the accompanier needs to act like a “balance.” He or she needs to tell you when you go astray, when you favor something unreasonably because you are fond of it or attracted to it. Then, the role of the accompanier is to remind you of other aspects you have forgotten. In the end, Ignatius insists that it is not the accompanier who decides on your vocation. It is the person with God, not the accompanier.

The accompanier has to refrain from judgment and pushiness, otherwise he or she interferes with the most intimate relationship one can have, and that’s with his Lord, what He speaks into you. The conditions for Ignatian discernment are high – you need to be aware that you’re always limited, and you always have a very biased self-perception and limited perception of others. You need to be very well aware that your natural and unchallenged inclinations may not be the best compass you have.

My doctoral thesis was on, ‘Spiritual Consolation in the Rules of Discernment.’ My personal journey and experience, my understanding of accompanying others has been shaped by all this. It’s very delicate, and Ignatius says discernment is not easily achieved, it’s an ongoing journey. It’s not like I go and follow my nose, what some think the pope says when he refers to discernment.

It’s a very challenging journey, and that seems to shake up the personal and theological “certainties” or “spiritual comfortableness and need for well-being” some have.