ROME – On any other day, the dominant Vatican headline yesterday would have belonged to German Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, whose unexpected resignation from the pope’s chief advisory body on combating sexual abuse left the broader state of Francis’s reform campaign an open question.

It wasn’t just the fact that Zollner resigned which raised eyebrows, but how.

Just moments after Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, had released a statement thanking Zollner for his service and benignly attributing his departure to a new assignment with the Diocese of Rome, Zollner put out his own communique blasting the group for alleged shortcomings in “responsibility, compliance, accountability and transparency.”

Those failures, the 56-year-old Zollner said, “have made it impossible for me to continue further” – indirectly creating the impression that O’Malley and his team were trying to sweep the reality of the situation under the rug.

(In an updated statement released Thursday, O’Malley said he was “surprised, disappointed and strongly disagree with his [Zollner’s] publicly-issued assertions challenging the commission’s effectiveness.”)

In the end, the Zollner news was largely overshadowed by the pontiff’s surprise hospitalization for what the Vatican described as a respiratory infection. Yet whenever the pontiff eventually gets back to work, the fate of his depleted Commission for the Protection of Minors will be waiting near the top of his to-do list.

Widely regarded as perhaps the Catholic Church’s leading expert on anti-abuse efforts, Zollner has been a member of the pontifical commission since its inception by Pope Francis in 2014.

A licensed psychotherapist, Zollner founded the Center for Child Protection in Munich in 2012, engineered its transition to Rome’s Jesuit-run Gregorian University in 2015, and oversaw its transformation into the new Institute of Anthropology: Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care in 2021.

Zollner was the driving force behind an unprecedented 2019 summit of the presidents of bishops’ conferences from around the world to discuss the abuse scandals. In recent years, no one has logged more frequent flyer miles traveling the world to present workshops, talks and symposia on best practices in the fight against sexual abuse for groups of bishops, religious, and lay leaders.

Thus when Zollner speaks on clerical sexual abuse, people listen.

In his version of events yesterday, Zollner said he felt compelled to abandon the commission because of mounting frustrations over several issues:

  • “A lack of clarity regarding the selection process of members and staff and their respective roles and responsibilities.”
  • “Financial accountability, which I believe is inadequate.”
  • “Transparency on how decisions are taken in the commission. Too often, there was insufficient information and vague communication with members on how particular decisions were taken.”
  • “Regulations that govern the relationship between the commission and the Dicastery for the Doctrine of Faith.” (Last June, Pope Francis placed the commission within the doctrinal office, raising questions about its independence.)

“The protection of children and vulnerable persons must be at the heart of the Catholic Church’s mission,” Zollner said. “Over the last years, I have grown increasingly concerned with how the commission, in my perception, has gone about achieving that goal.”

Zollner’s exit is not the first high-profile defection. In 2016, abuse survivor Peter Saunders was placed on leave from the pontifical commission because of friction with other members and never returned; in 2017, the only other survivor on the panel, Irish laywoman Marie Collins, stepped down, citing recalcitrance in other Vatican offices to cooperate with the commission’s recommendations.

In March 2021, American Monsignor Robert Oliver was abruptly replaced as the secretary of the commission, learning of the move only after a Vatican news bulletin announcing reappointments to the body omitted his name.

One way of reading Zollner’s exit, therefore, is as another nail in the coffin for the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Billed when it was launched in 2014 as the tip of the spear for the pope’s reform effort, it would be revealed as a paper tiger – capable only of giving advice, and that more often ignored than acted upon.

Yet there’s another optic for viewing Zollner’s exit, one which would place the focus not only on principle but also on bureaucratic turf wars.

According to this way of reading the situation, Zollner’s understandable, and entirely laudable, hope is to build his new institute at the Gregorian University into a leading center in Catholicism for anti-abuse resources and programming, with budgets and staffing commensurate with such aims.

To some extent, the idea would be that the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors would act as a general contractor, designing and approving projects but often relying on sub-contractors, including Zollner’s institute, to deliver some of the nuts-and-bolts programs and services.

That vision would seem slightly at odds with the language of O’Malley’s statement yesterday, in which he described the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors as “the center for safeguarding throughout the Church” – not a general contractor, in other words, but a comprehensive construction company in itself.

In that context, the loss of a respected founding member of the commission may bolster the stock of other entities in the church looking to play a part in the anti-abuse effort, including in the ever-challenging quest for funding and personnel.

None of this should suggest that Zollner’s decision to leave the commission was merely strategic — on the contrary, the concerns he cited in his statement are widely shared among abuse survivors, reformers and even current and former members of the commission itself. Yet equally, when institutional interests are at stake, one can’t ignore their possible influence either.

Going forward, the challenge for Pope Francis and his advisers would seem to be to convince people that the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors isn’t simply smoke and mirrors, which will include clarifying its relationship with other centers of thought and energy in the church devoted to recovery from the abuse scandals.

In his statement, Zollner said, “I remain open to discuss safeguarding with the commission.” It will be fascinating, not to mention critical for the pope’s own legacy, to track where that conversation goes.