ROME – As bishops take part in a summit on young people this month at the Vatican, an expert on clerical sexual abuse said Monday that he’s confident the question of abuse in the Church will be a part of the document to emerge from the gathering.
“I have met a good number of participants at the synod, and I have talked to a good number of participants before it started, and they all told me that they would bring it up and they have brought it up. It has become a very important area of discussion, as I am informed,” said German Father Hans Zollner, President of The Center for Child Protection (CCP) at the Jesuit-run Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, in an interview with Crux Oct. 15.
“I could not have imagined it otherwise. I am glad, but more than glad, I think it was obvious that it would be addressed,” he said.
“I expect that there would be some clear reference in the final document,” Zollner said.
The priest, who has been on the vanguard of addressing clerical sexual abuse, pointed to several recent milestones that have marked a shift within the Church.
He listed Pope Francis’s letter to the Chilean bishops in May, an upcoming summit of the heads of episcopal conferences from around the world on abuse in February and the Pennsylvania grand jury report in August as examples of how now more than ever an emphasis is being placed on the systemic issues that have handicapped the Church’s response.
“The whole development of becoming more and more aware of the gravity of the crimes, and the necessity to really act more consistently and in a more transparent way,” he said, is what those developments illustrate.
Zollner called the papal letter to the bishops in Chile, a country plagued by some of the most gruesome examples of power and sexual abuse, “a turning point,” since attention shifted from individual cases to the underlying structures that allowed the perpetrators to commit the abuse and bishops to cover them up.
He said the Pennsylvania report underscored the failures of the Church, and added that he’s optimistic about the Rome meeting in February when bishops will address the topic of sexual abuse.
“The announcement of the meeting of the heads of bishops’ conferences, this is unprecedented,” he said. “We know what is at stake, and the stakes are very high.”
On Monday, Zollner participated at the presentation of a book called On the side of the little ones: Church and Sexual Abuse, written by Angela Rinaldi, a member of the CCP. Zollner wrote the introduction. The book’s aim is to give a historical perspective on the Church’s handling or mishandling of sexual abuse though the optic of formation and power structures.
“Sexual abuse of minors must be talked about in terms of prevention,” Rinaldi said at the presentation, “a formation that leads to the emotional maturity of the person and a rediscovery of the position of power as something that comes from above and is loyal not to an institution but to the community of faithful and the people of God in general.”
“This way we can really think of a Church that acts on the side of the little ones,” she said.
In her book, Rinaldi addresses what she calls “a sexual abuse of power” in the history of the Catholic Church, where the abuser is not only vested with an authority attributed to him by society but also by the sacramental nature of his role as priest.
“Sexual abuse must be seen under the perspective of abuse of power,” Zollner said during the book presentation, adding that throughout its history and from a sociological point of view, “the Church has certainly favored abuse and the non-prosecution of these cases.”
Once again referring to the Pennsylvania grand jury Report in August, he said that it “underlined the systematic cover-up, negligence and non-cooperation with canonical and civil law in terms of calling out (denuncia) and punishment of these crimes.”
Zollner acknowledged the reality of a “Church system” that allowed continued abuse around the world, and pointed to “a passive resistance that we find within the Church, a reluctance and difficulty in confronting this issue.”
Zollner said, as he has many times before and strives for from within the CCP, that the Church could become a model for other institutions faced with widespread sexual abuse, from the entertainment industry, to schools, to many other non-governmental structures.
Through small and big steps, he said, the Church can present the best practices in terms of formation of not just clergy but also lay people, and the creation of governance and leadership structures that combat sexual abuse.
“If we don’t do it as Church who else could do it?” he asked. “Who else would have the strength and courage to expose themselves to that criticism?”