ROME – German Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, one of the Catholic Church’s leading experts in child protection, has said that more dangerous than clericalism in the clerical abuse crisis is a “paternalistic” attitude within the Church that both devalues laypeople and puts clergy on a pedestal.

While clericalism has become a hot-button issue under Pope Francis and while it certainly contributes to the problem of abuse, “What I think is a deeper problem is the paternalistic attitude that exists,” said German Jesuit Father Hans Zollner in an interview with Crux.

The problem with this attitude, he said, “has two sides: Both with those in the hierarchy not involving the gifts of a wide variety of faithful, and on the other hand, we have laypeople who enable a paternalistic attitude by believing bishops to be omniscient and having the power to affect immediate change.”

This is not referring to accountability for crimes, he stressed, adding that, “What I want to affirm is that every baptized person is co-responsible for the holiness of the Church and needs to be prayerful about that and take action so that the community of the Church is ever more a witness to the Gospel.”

Head of the Pontifical Gregorian University’s Centre for Child Protection and a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Zollner is among those supervising new task forces helping bishops’ conferences develop and adopt guidelines for abuse prevention.

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Clericalism and a skewed understanding of the priesthood and how they contribute to the Catholic Church’s clerical abuse crisis was originally on the list of discussion topics for a conference Zollner had organized exploring the issue from a theological perspective, but which was cancelled due to the global coronavirus outbreak.

Originally scheduled for March 11-14, the so-called “theological laboratory” was titled “Doing Theology in the Face of Abuse,” and was focused on five topics:

  • The image of the Church that conveys and betrays Jesus: Rediscovering Jesus in ecclesiology
  • Sin and crimes: Punishment and reconciliation: Doing justice for victims, perpetrators, and the entire Church
  • Priesthood – Ministry of service vs. Clericalism: Rethinking the sacrament of orders
  • Sexuality and Vulnerability: Re-examining sexual ethics and inhibiting abuse
  • Church and World: The Church’s mission as guiding our reform

However, the event was canceled amid a swath of government restrictions on schools and universities in a bid to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Italy.

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Zollner said looking at the abuse issue from a theological perspective will help understand what went wrong in terms of the image of the Church and its hierarchy that many had, as well as a deepening in the concepts of justice, forgiveness and redemption.

He also spoke about the role of new task forces and said he believes the Church’s so-called “new movements” must be a priority for the Church in abuse prevention involving minors and vulnerable adults.

Please read below for excerpts of Crux’s interview with Father Hans Zollner:

Crux: What was your goal in organizing this conference? It had been planned for quite some time, but why this topic, and why now?

Zollner: One of our main goals is to create a long-term theologically based conversation amongst theologians from around the world in regard to the abuse crisis. Often, we place total responsibility on psychologists and canon lawyers to take action when it comes to this issue, while ignoring the deep-rooted theological thought behind it as well. This is an attempt to build up more conversation around that, from a theological standpoint.
Sadly the conference has been cancelled, but it was expected to reflect on the clerical abuse crisis through the lens of systematic theology. What can a theological analysis of the abuse crisis offer to the Church, and to the efforts for child protection?

It is easy to put all the responsibility on the shoulders of canon lawyers and psychologists when it comes to doing something about abuse in the Church, but this is simply not the whole picture. A theological analysis will help to understand what went so terribly wrong in our ideas about the Church, bishops, priests, and deacons, about the relationship between justice and forgiveness, and about grace and redemption offered by the suffering and risen Lord.

Many people have blamed clericalism and the “patriarchal” structure of the Church as contributing to the abuse problem. In your view, are these contributing factors, or are they separate issues?

Clericalism, as the pope frequently says, is the temptation to think and act as if the mere fact of being a priest or bishop can justify special treatment, special privileges, and an exemption from the rules that apply to others. It denotes an inherent sense of entitlement. Of course, a “clericalist attitude” could lead one to believe the Church only has a patriarchal structure or that only priests are important. However, I think it is important to affirm that it is also very much matriarchal. In every age, prophetic women have been leaders. Women like Dorothy Day, Mary MacKillop, Frances of Rome, Hildegard von Bingen, the early church “matriarch” Saint Macrina, and Mary the Mother of God herself – all carried out their missions, which were often in tension with what some men in their lives wanted.

What I think is a deeper problem is the paternalistic attitude that exists. This has two sides: both with those in the hierarchy not involving the gifts of a wide variety of faithful, and on the other hand, we have lay people who enable a paternalistic attitude by believing bishops to be omniscient and having the power to affect immediate change. Here, I am not speaking about accountability for crimes; we all ought to expect that priests and bishops are held accountable. What I want to affirm is every baptized person is co-responsible for the holiness of the Church and needs to be prayerful about that and take action so that the community of the Church is ever more a witness to the Gospel.

It’s been a year since the Vatican’s summit on the protection of minors. What is your impression of the global recognition of child sexual abuse as a problem to be faced everywhere? Are most countries now on board, or are there still some in denial?

In March 2019, the Vatican City State adopted a new law and guidelines concerning the protection of minors and vulnerable persons. In May 2019, Pope Francis announced the motu proprio Vos Estis Lux Mundi, which outlined the responsibilities of bishops, extended the concept of protection of “vulnerable persons,” and established the obligation to report any case of abuse to church authorities. In December 2019, the Holy Father announced the abolition of the Pontifical Secret in cases of sexual violence and abuse of minors by clergy. He modified the legislation raising the age of minors from 14 to 18 years old in what constitutes a crime of possession of material that sexually exploits children under the “delicta graviora” and made it possible for lay canon lawyers to take part in the legal processes.

His most recent action on this front has been the creation of a task force that will help bishops’ conferences and others to prepare and update their guidelines pertaining to the protection of minors and vulnerable persons. I assume that they are now in the process of selecting the most capable people to offer this service, and they are clarifying the concrete duties of such a task force.

Beyond the laws and norms, I must say that I am observing a positive change of attitude in many of the bishops and bishops’ conferences in the countries I have visited since the summit in February 2019 – especially in many countries in which the Church and society are increasingly aware of the urgency to take swift action in regard to these issues.

You mentioned that several things have been done since last year’s summit. Going forward, what in your view, is the next frontier in the fight against abuse, and how can it be addressed? Many have suggested that lay movements are an urgent area to tackle…

Yes, I think this is one of the priorities. In fact, the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life has taken a very serious approach in this, and they are in the process of collecting guidelines from the various movements, which are very diverse in size and resources. Unfortunately, several of the communities that have been disbanded or placed under direct Vatican control declare themselves to be “heralds of tradition,” but in fact ignore essential forms of governance and rules developed in the Church over the course of centuries.

You are supervising together with the other organizers of last year’s “summit” on child protection and the Vatican’s “sostituto,” the new Vatican taskforce (whose members are still to be appointed) to aid bishops’ conferences and religious orders in either developing or updating their guidelines. What’s the reason for the taskforce, and what do you hope it achieves?

What we hope for is a speedy and consistent process of updating the guidelines of the respective bishops’ conferences where that hasn’t yet happened in relation to the new canonical norms mentioned above and their implementation. I take it that the task force will also assist bishops’ conferences that are already in the process of making these updates, ensuring that the core principles of these updates follow the indications from the CDF [Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] and implement the new canonical dispositions, so that victims are being listened to, justice is being done, and the commitment to all kinds of safeguarding measures is steadfast and sustainable.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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