esuit Father Hans Zollner, president of the Center for Child Protection, speaks in 2015 at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome during a news conference officially launching the Center for Child Protection in Rome. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Clergy caught in ‘siege mentality,’ says head of Vatican's expert on sex abuse

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  • September 25, 2018

ROME – The Catholic Church is on trial and what happens next will define its place in the world to come, said one of the Vatican’s foremost experts on clergy sex abuse.

Fr. Hans Zollner, a Jesuit theologian and psychologist, was appointed by Pope Francis in 2017 to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and is also president of the Centre for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University. 

“For many, this is a breaking point in Church history,” he told journalists attending a Sept. 15 seminar on the Church’s response to sex abuse. “It’s a breaking point in this papacy.

 “If there is no concrete outcome from the February meeting (between the Pope and the heads of the world’s bishop conferences), it will be very difficult.”

Zollner said many bishops and priests feel overwhelmed by the issue which is causing a “siege mentality” among some Church leaders. 

He said bishops must resist falling into the trap of working in individual silos but instead present an open and united front, sharing experiences and expertise in order to properly serve victims.  The Church must be pro-active and transparent in its dealings, said Zollner. 

“Still, you can find that in some pockets, people are saying this is a Central European, Northern European, Anglo-Saxon problem,” he said. “There is so much fear of opening archives, opening procedures, opening trials. Why is that? Where does that come from? How do we get out of the defensive?”

Zollner often travels to dioceses aroun d the world as a consultant. On Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, he was a keynote speaker at a conference in Sydney, Australia, that included 600 victims and survivors of abuse, priests, nuns, educators and Church employees. Australia recently completed a royal commission into child sex abuse that heard of more than 4,000 allegations of clergy abuse. Australian Cardinal George Pell is currently facing criminal charges for abuse of minors. 

“The reaction to speaking about these issues is very different from what it was four years ago,” said Zollner. “People are much more receptive now and there is much more openness. I’ve told them (the bishops) that you will have to deal with this for the rest of your bishophood.”

Zollner was a speaker at a one-week seminar organized to help familiarize journalists with how the Vatican operates. More than 30 journalists from around the world met with Church leaders to discuss various topics, but often the questions concerned the list of allegations against clergy. 

“The sense of wanting to protect the reputation of the Church is there, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that the Church is not also trying to respond and to change,” said Fr. Tait Schroeder, a canon lawyer at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. “In a general way, I see bishops wanting to respond. I see dioceses wanting to protect not only the reputation, but they want to see how we want to address the situation.”

The Congregation has 14 officials who deal with sexual abuse cases from around the world. There is definitely pressure to work through an overflow of cases, Schroeder said, but due process can not be sacrificed for the sake of speed, he said. 

Schroeder said rulings by the Congregation are not always made public as they may fall under the protective seal of the “pontifical secret,” a code of confidentiality under canon law that protects inner workings of the Church tribunal. 

Msgr. Philip Whitmore, rector of the Venerable English College in Rome, said seminaries must become vigilant about the kind of men they form for the priesthood. 

“Because of these scandals, we have to be very aware of the social and psychological formation to prepare our seminarians for celibate life,” he said. 

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