“Listen to the survivors.”
This is the first important step the Catholic Church has to take when dealing with survivors of clerical abuse, said Fr Hans Zollner, SJ, president of the Centre for Child Protection at Rome’s
Pontifical Gregorian University and member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
In an interview with NZ Catholic, Fr Zollner said Pope Francis will soon call for a day of prayer for clerical sexual abuse survivors as part of the several measures the Church is undertaking.
“It will not be universally on the same day but there will be a letter that there should be a day of prayer in all regions,” he said.
Fr Zollner, who is German, was in New Zealand during the first week of August talking to formators as well as those who work with young people in the Church.
He was also one of the main speakers at “Safeguarding in the Catholic Church”, a training day held by the National Office for Professional Standards at the Mercy Conference Centre in Wellington on August 4.
“We’ve had a day with the formators and those responsible in seminarian religious
formation and seeing how human spiritual pastoral and intellectual formation can go together. It’s also learning experience for me. It’s a listening experience,” Fr Zollner said.
He said Popes Benedict XVI and Francis had made tremendous strides in addressing clerical abuse.
“Pope Benedict has already done many important things in terms of tightening canon law and bringing people to justice according to Church law. Francis followed that by the institution of the pontifical commission,” he said.
More recently, he said, Pope Francis put out an apostolic letter, issued motu propio (on his own initiative) entitled Come una madre amorevole (As a Loving Mother) which provides for the removal of bishops or provincials from their offices if they were found to have been negligent in implementing the Church’s law.
Still, Fr Zollner said, non-compliance with guidelines written and published by most bishops’ conferences is still a problem.
“The biggest obstacle is that people think the issue of child sexual abuse by priests is something that should not be talked about in the Church because it is an uncomfortable and difficult issue,” he said.
Fr Zollner said it is difficult for clergy and lay people to discuss the problem because “we feel attacked”.
“We cannot deny that this has happened. There is no use to become defensive and say that this is only a fraction of abuse that happens by institutions and in the family context. We have to own up to our own responsibilities for our own context,” he said.
The truth is that the Church has failed some of the most vulnerable people.
“It is a sin and a crime and we have to own it up as a corporate identity,” he said.
“What we can do is . . . to acknowledge the sin and the crime, and in as far as it is in our remit, to apologise for that and do what can be done so that there is less harm to young people as possible.”
In the quest to safeguard the vulnerable in the Church, Fr Zollner said education is key.
As president of the Centre for Child Protection at the Gregorian University in Rome, Fr Zollner said they provide elearning programmes as well as diploma and residential programmes.
The e-learning programme is accessible around the globe with about 30 institutions in 20 countries participating to date.
It includes information on how people should react if they have a suspicion of abuse, what they should do with the survivor, what to do with the alleged perpetrator, what is the legal situation, what is the spiritual component and the cultural differences.
“We try to help people understand. An important measure always is to tell people about the stories of survivors or to invite people to listen to survivors,” he said.
Often, he said, the survivors will talk about having been neglected by the Church after the abuse.
“It is not only about receiving no help but having no real acceptance and support and not even having been listened to,” Fr Zollner said.
This can be more damaging to the person, he noted.
Fr Zollner had recently been in the Philippines and Australia conducting workshops on providing safe environments for the young and the vulnerable in the Church.
He said canon law pertaining to this subject is quite rigorous and on a par with legislation in different countries.
“I think we have to work on the procedure, on the jurisprudence,” he said. He said this means how fast the laws are being implemented.
“We have way too few people who work in this field and we’d need way more staffing which is difficult to obtain but we are working on that,” he said.
Fr Zollner expects there will be a lot of improvement in the area of implementing safeguards against abuse in the near future.