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ROME – German Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, one of the church’s leading protagonists in the fight against clerical sexual abuse, has sought to clarify his reasons for stepping down from a Vatican safeguarding commission after nearly 10 years on the job.
Speaking to journalists Monday, Zollner denied that he was targeting anyone individually or that he resigned as part of an internal power struggle, but said he had ongoing concerns regarding how the commission operated that went unanswered, despite several attempts to engage his superiors on the issues.
“It was not easy for me at all to leave the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and to publicly address the existing problems,” he said, saying, “Many times I asked myself the following questions: Does this gesture correspond to the team spirit and the discretion necessary for any working group? Will I hurt the Holy Father with my decision?”
Zollner said he experienced “weeks and months of internal tension to find the right answer to these questions” before finally making his decision.
“One thing is certain,” he said, noting that “several members have left the Pontifical Commission before me and there has been no shortage of criticisms recently expressed publicly by past members, some quite strong.”
He insisted that the concerns and critiques that he himself voiced “have no polemical purpose and do not intend to damage the commission, but to develop and improve internally the work and functioning” of the commission for the sake of the victims who were harmed by abuse within the church, and in agreement with the pope’s desires.
Appearing to respond to criticisms that his decision to resign was done to bolster his own projects, Zollner said that the commission has an “intrinsic value” in the church, and that nothing can take its place, including the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith – the office to which the commission now formally belongs – nor his own institute for safeguarding, established just last year.
Pope Francis created the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in 2013 to advise the Vatican on best practices in terms of safeguarding efforts and abuse prevention. He tapped American Cardinal Sean O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, to lead the commission, and American Monsignor Bob Oliver as its secretary.
Last month Zollner, a founding member, shocked the Catholic world by resigning from the body, citing a slew of reasons related to internal problems and difficulties with Vatican bureaucracy.
Zollner is one of the most visible faces of the Catholic Church’s child protection efforts. A Jesuit priest and psychologist, he 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.
Despite his increased responsibilities and his packed travel schedule, Zollner until last month maintained his presence on the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which has had a tumultuous existence since its creation 10 years ago.
One of the most significant setbacks the commission experienced was in 2017, when another founding member, Irish abuse survivor and advocate Marie Collins resigned, citing frustration over certain Vatican officials and offices stonewalling their proposals.
Prior to Collins’s resignation, another founding member and abuse survivor, Peter Saunders, was asked to leave in 2016 over his vocal criticism of the Catholic Church and due to friction with other commission members, and he never returned.
In 2021, Oliver was abruptly replaced as the commission’s secretary without any prior notice, learning of the decision only after a Vatican news bulletin announcing reappointments to the commission that omitted his name was published, leaving a bad taste in many peoples’ mouths over the way his departure was handled.
Despite these hiccups, the commission has pushed forward, and Zollner was one of the main protagonists in organizing a 2019 Vatican summit on child protection that was attended by the presidents of all bishops’ conferences worldwide, as well as a slew of experts and survivors.
Yet further doubt was cast on the commission’s effectiveness when Pope Francis during last year’s revamp of the Roman Curia formally inserted the commission into the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), which handles clerical abuse cases, raising questions among many about the commission’s independence and whether it would still be effective in its work while navigating a bureaucracy which historically has been stubbornly resistant to change.
When Zollner stepped down from the commission last month, his departure was announced by the group in a statement thanking Zollner for his service, and implying that he left due to his increased responsibilities leading the Gregorian’s new institute and due to a new assignment assisting a child protection commission in the Diocese of Rome.
However, shortly after, Zollner, 56, released his own statement blasting the group for what he said were shortcomings in “responsibility, compliance, accountability and transparency.”
Those failures “have made it impossible for me to continue further,” he said, implying that O’Malley and the team were trying to put a polite face on a festering internal dispute.
In his statement, Zollner cited a lack of clarity in the selection of new members and their roles and responsibilities; a lack of financial accountability; a lack of transparency on how important decisions were made and a lack of communication with members; and a lack of regulations governing the commission’s working relationship with the DDF.
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In his statement, Zollner said that protecting children and vulnerable persons “must be at the heart of the Catholic Church’s mission,” and that “Over the last years, I have grown increasingly concerned with how the commission, in my perception, has gone about achieving that goal.”
During Monday’s press conference, Zollner said he did not want to point the finger at anyone, but rather offer an explanation of how he came to his decision.
He insisted that his decision to resign was not a personal attack against anyone, and said that, “If anyone feels hurt I am very sorry and would like to ask forgiveness here and now.”
Zollner said he has received lots of encouragement since his resignation from the commission was announced, and that some have also cautioned him against making any further public statement.
“For me this is not an alternative because it would mean confusing teamwork with complicity, discretion with coverup, and loyalty with servility,” he said, and reiterated the concerns he voiced in his original statement on the importance of transparency, compliance, and accountability.
These points “are essential in the fight against abuse,” he said, saying transparency is “the basis of a synodal church that allows the participation of many,” while compliance is “the basis of justice whereby the rules apply to all and in the same way and not in an arbitrary way,” and responsibility is “the basis of a mutual and fraternal respect.”
“When there is a lack of transparency, compliance, and responsibility, it opens the door to abuse and coverup. The Pontifical Commission has set out to combat these terrible realities. If it wants to do it in a credible way, it cannot help but focus on these same principles,” he said.
Zollner said there were no abuses inside of the commission, but in terms of the commission accomplishing its goal, he said “it doesn’t help” if transparency, compliance, and responsibility are not lived.
To this end, he said there is a problem with “how rules, norms are inserted in the distinction of the various roles inside the commission,” and that given this lack of clarity, the lines were blurred and there was an overlap among various members and experts, causing confusion.
“If one doesn’t know what they are responsible for, if one doesn’t have their limits clear, their precise tasks – what they are responsible for and what they must do – and who they report to, and on what criteria, it leaves confusion, and this creates difficulty,” Zollner said.
This leads to problems with compliance in terms of how rules are followed as well as transparency, as there is a lack of clarity about who members report to and who they should expect answers from, complicating the commission’s work as members also seek to work through cultural and linguistic barriers, he said.
While stressing that he was not “placing doubt on the quality of members,” Zollner said the “reasons and criteria” for how new members are appointed must be clear.
He also raised concern about a lack of clarity regarding the commission’s relationship with the DDF.
Around four or five years ago, he said O’Malley had asked him to talk to the cardinal prefect of a different Vatican dicastery to see if they were willing to accept the commission. Though he did not disclose which dicastery this was, Zollner said the cardinal was willing to take the commission, but in the end nothing came of it, and the commission was placed within the DDF.
Zollner said he had written several emails to his superiors citing his concerns prior to submitting his resignation, and that in these emails, he made “quite critical” remarks about the DDF and the fact that the commission was placed in the body responsible for handling the judicial aspect of the cases.
“It’s like putting it in any civil tribunal,” where there is no space for the “defense of the victim and to work in the protection for minors,” he said, and lamented that nearly a year after the commission was placed within the DDF, “we don’t know how this belonging to the dicastery works or can work, or in what way we can seek to work together.”
“There could be collaboration, could be requests for reciprocal information, but for the moment I am not aware of any protocol for collaboration. It needs to be clarified if this collaboration is merely symbolic…or if it has an effective value,” he said.
He denied that the case of Jesuit Father Marko Ivan Rupnik, a fellow Jesuit and famed Catholic artist accused of abusing multiple adult women, influenced his decision to step down, saying he had already begun to question his role in the commission when the Rupnik scandals broke last year.
In response to criticisms that he received a letter from one of Rupnik’s victims that he did not respond to, Zollner apologized, saying he didn’t respond because the letter was addressed to the Father General of the Jesuits and 17 people, including the prefect of the DDF, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, other members of the dicastery, and church officials in Slovenia.
Giving a summary of his attempts to engage his superiors about his concerns, Zollner said he sent emails to institutional accounts in May, August, September, and October of 2022, voicing his concerns, but never got a response.
Zollner said he finally requested a meeting with Pope Francis and met the pope on Jan. 12 of this year to explain his concerns and to offer his resignation from the commission.
“The Holy Father listened to my concerns, he showed understanding, and he accepted my request to resign,” he said, saying that in March got a letter of confirmation signed by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
After this, Zollner said he was contacted by O’Malley on March 27, two days before his resignation was formally announced, proposing that they release a joint statement. Zollner said he agreed, as long as his concerns were included as a reason for his decision to step down.
The next day, Zollner said he received a draft statement thanking him for his work, with a second page containing his concerns, but it was written with “roses and flowers,” downplaying the problems he cited.
Zollner said he wanted to modify the draft and was told they had another week or so to finalize the statement. However, the next day, March 29, the commission published only the first part of the statement, which did not say anything about his concerns.
“I didn’t refuse to do a joint statement, but we needed to define how. Then, seeing that the first news publishing this statement said I was too busy, that this was the main reason for leaving the commission, I couldn’t let it stay like this, because that’s not what it was,” he said.
Zollner reiterated that he supports the commission, and that his intention was never to impact or impede the commission’s work.
“How could I? I have been on it for nine years and we have gone through a lot together,” he said, but insisted that responsibility, transparency, and compliance “are signposts that the church has given itself. We need to strive more and more to really live up to that, and if there is one body in the church that needs to be exemplary in this, I think it needs to be the commission.”
He praised Pope Francis’s commitment to the issue of safeguarding and said the pope is “an absolute example of how the church should be” when it comes to listening and welcoming victim-survivors.
“Beyond the rules, beyond the institutions, beyond the guidelines, the Church must deal with people and must listen and not run away and defend itself as a first reaction,” he said, saying many people, himself included, “don’t understand why it is so difficult to sit at the table and listen, without answering, but being with people and their wounds.”
“When they tell me, you are the first person that has listened to me, it causes me great pain,” he said, saying it is everyone’s task to listen to victims, including laypeople, not just bishops and clergy.
“Many victims inside the church no longer expect anything, they’ve closed off to the church…but there are others, less visible, less public, who want to meet, just once, a human face in the church. For me this is the greatest pain, they often don’t find it,” he said.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen