Ahead of pope’s abuse summit, expert warns there’s no ‘one size fits all’ fix
Elise Harris and John L. Allen Jr. Feb. 11, 2019
A leading expert in the field of child protection has said that while one goal of the upcoming Vatican summit on abuse prevention is to get the world’s bishops on the same page, a uniform solution to the clerical abuse issue doesn’t exist.
Speaking to Crux, Jesuit Father Hans Zollner said he believes the reason for calling the Feb. 21-24 anti-abuse summit is because “this is a very urgent, very challenging moment for the Church and an urgent question which the Holy Father has made a priority for himself and for the Church, by calling for this unique meeting.”
Zollner, head of the Center for Child Protection at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University and a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, is a member of the organizing committee for the February meeting along with Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago; Cardinal Oswald Gracias from India and Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the Vatican’s former top prosecutor of sex abuse crimes.
The heads of all bishop’s conferences throughout the world will attend the gathering, as well as members of Eastern Catholic Churches and religious superiors.
Echoing the words of Pope Francis, Zollner said the summit will be a meeting of “pastors” who will come together to pray, and who will “listen to be informed about what they need to do, and to own that.”
While a three-day-meeting is not enough to dive into complex issues such as implications related to canon law, there needs to be follow-through on what is discussed, he said, adding that one goal will be to achieve some sort of global uniformity in terms of best-practices in abuse prevention and prosecution.
“At the same time, there can be no one-size-fits-all guideline for the whole Church, because our languages do not translate certain concepts, the law systems are completely different, the political and social situations are very diverse,” he said.
“If Rome comes and gives everybody one guideline, everyone thinks things are solved once and for all,” but this is not the case, he said. “You need to be sure those responsible do the work.”
Below are excerpts from Crux’s conversation with Father Hans Zollner:
Crux: How is the schedule for the meeting developing so far?
Zollner: We are making good progress. The meeting will be rooted in prayer and the sacraments, including a penitential liturgy and a closing Mass. It will be a meeting of pastors who will listen to the testimonies of victim-survivors and focus on the themes of responsibility, accountability, and transparency through plenary sessions and working groups. The Holy Father will be present throughout.
Will there eventually be a list published with the names of those presenting, including the survivors?
We will make the names of those presenting available but will of course respect the wishes of the survivors regarding whether or not they want their names known.
Is this a decision-making meeting? In terms of recommendations for decisions the pope has to make, is that the object of this?
As the pope has said, it is a meeting of pastors who will listen to be informed about what they need to do, and to own that. In that sense, it is certainly decision-making, because they need to make a decision about themselves: what is their role and their responsibility. But in a three-day meeting you cannot have decisions on complex canon law issues, for example. This is not the body to do that.
But can you talk about those canon law issues, and would you expect that conversation will happen?
Sure, of course.
What do you think was the original intuition behind the decision to call this meeting?
The intuition is that this is a very urgent, very challenging moment for the Church and an urgent question which the Holy Father has made a priority for himself and for the Church, by calling for this unique meeting.
The Holy Father said this will be a sort of catechesis…
The three topics of the three days refer to institutional functioning. The pope himself has put this on the agenda since the letter to the Chilean bishops, the letter to the People of God in August, and the letter to the bishops in Mundelein in January. So yes, it will be an education, but education mostly in governance: almost all of them have guidelines, but the basis of everything is that they need to be implemented.
Would you say therefore that a major point of this summit is to promote some kind of rough global uniformity in the way that this problem is approached?
Yes. And at the same time, there can be no one-size-fits-all guideline for the whole Church, because our languages do not translate certain concepts, the law systems are completely different, the political and social situations are very diverse. And if Rome comes and gives everybody one guideline, everyone thinks things are solved once and for all.
You need to be sure those responsible do the work, and this is the good thing about the CDF asking all of the bishops’ conferences to do so. The fundamental standards have to be clear. What is done on the ground will have some variation depending on the country, within the boundaries of the fundamental guidelines. That’s why the task forces, from my point of view, will be an important outcome of all this.
I spoke about that in my interview with Vatican News: that there will be at the end, I hope, regional task forces that look at bishops’ conferences’ policies and help them deliver on that. We still have a handful of bishops’ conferences - all in very poor countries or with very little resources - who have not sent in a draft of their policies, and we want to be able to help those that need support.
Only six or seven?
Yes. Almost all have sent in and have gotten back remarks from the CDF.
So far, we’ve heard both Cardinal Parolin and Pope Francis talk about the danger of inflated expectations for the summit. Is that a sentiment you share? What do you think it is realistic to expect?
This meeting is one important step of our long journey in response to the grave problem of clerical sexual abuse.
We are working to ensure that when participants return home, they have a full understanding of the tragedy of clerical sexual abuse and its profound effect on victims and take full responsibility to ensure the Church’s failures are not repeated. We want to equip the participants to do that by working to ensure that they understand the laws and processes that apply regarding the prevention of abuse and its cover-up and have the tools to implement them effectively.
Many believe that the unfinished business of recovery from the abuse scandals is accountability for bishops, not for personal acts of abuse, but for failing to respond adequately to allegations against others. Do you believe that the accountability question will be discussed at the summit?
We will spend a full day of the meeting on accountability.
American Catholics are anxious for the Vatican to release what it knew and when it knew it regarding abuse accusations against ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Can you think of any legitimate reason why that information couldn’t be released?
My understanding is that the case regarding former Cardinal McCarrick is proceeding expeditiously.
When you look at a situation - I know the pastoral damage the McCarrick case has done in the U.S. - what’s the exit strategy from that? The smoking gun people want probably isn’t there. Absent that, how do we move on?
I believe that there will be a verdict on McCarrick soon…but I know that this is not enough for people.
In the wake of the McCarrick scandal and the release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, many dioceses in the U.S. and elsewhere are releasing the names of all priests credibly accused of sexual abuse. Do you think that’s good practice?
Increased transparency is key to efforts to combat clerical sexual abuse. We will spend a full day of the meeting focused on issues regarding transparency, and I look forward to our discussions on particular issues at that time.
In your view, could being more transparent about the abuse issue help mend the hurt Catholics feel after the scandals that have come to light over the past year, including the McCarrick case?
I think it can be an element. I believe you can only rebuild trust if consistently you work on whenever there is a mistake, whatever it is…you admit that, and you go public with this and you have all the measures in place to deal with it according to the standards you have. You need to consistently comply with that, and you learn also what this responsibility involves.
In the States you have very good advice provided by experts, whereas in some other parts of the world this is lacking. There you are by yourself with the means you have, and you have only this amount of time, this amount of energy and this amount of sleep that you need, and you have no experts around you can ask or brother bishops who have dealt with this because there are none. You are alone.
For me it would be a huge success if we got all people in this conference on board with this, that they understand what is at stake and what they need to do, and that we face this grave and urgent problem together.
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