Fr. Hans Zollner

Abuse rules ordered for lay movements

  • March 4, 2020

VATICAN CITY -- Days after revelations of sexual abuse committed by Jean Vanier, a Vatican abuse expert said organizations led by a charismatic leader who is followed uncritically and commands or demands control over members are at risk for cases of physical, sexual and psychological abuse.

Jesuit Fr. Hans Zollner was not speaking specifically about Vanier as he explained why the Vatican has ordered international Catholic lay movements and organizations to develop detailed child-protection guidelines and norms for handling allegations of the abuse of minors and vulnerable adults.

Sexual abuse occurs in a situation where an imbalance of power between two people is exploited, Zollner said. It’s the antithesis of healthy spiritual guidance, which encourages freedom, including freedom from the guide.

L’Arche, the international federation of communities of people with and without intellectual disabilities founded by Vanier, does not fall under the Vatican because it is not exclusively Catholic. However, L’Arche has worked with the Vatican and it informed the Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life of the L’Arche investigation that concluded Vanier, the Catholic writer and theologian, “engaged in manipulative sexual relationships” with at least six adult women over a 35-year period.

Zollner called the revelations shocking, although “not in the sense that I could not imagine that somebody, even if he is considered a holy man, has other sides” to his life and personality.

“We need to come to grips with the reality that our expectations, our longing, our desire for holy models is so strong that we forget that all of us are human, weak beings,” he said.

International organizations recognized by the Vatican include hundreds of thousands of Catholics around the world, so creating abuse guidelines “is an important step,” said Zollner, a professor of psychology and president of the Centre for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

More than 90 per cent of the international organizations have filed their guidelines, according to Cardinal Kevin Farrell. They promise safe-environment training for members, contain detailed rules for activities with minors and clearly outline the responsibility of a person who is told about or suspects a case of abuse.

Of course, victims always are free to report allegations to their local police and local bishops, Farrell said. And if members of one of the groups want to work in a parish or diocesan program, they also must fulfill local requirements for safeguarding training and background checks.

From now on, Catholic movements and organizations of mostly laity who want official recognition as “international associations of the faithful” will have to include safeguarding and reporting guidelines when they apply for Vatican recognition, the cardinal said.

First under Pope Benedict XVI and now under Pope Francis, several small, newer communities — both religious orders and mixed groups of lay and religious — have been disbanded or placed under Vatican-mandated outside control because of sexual, physical or psychological abuse of members.

Farrell said that looking back, many of the groups “were approved at too young an age” and lacked maturity, experience in governance and oversight.

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