Members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors (Cruxnow.com)

The response of the Church to the abuse of minors has been controversial. It has been said that the Holy See, and local Churches, have not done everything in their power to facilitate research or prevention. Fernando Rodríguez-Borlado, of Aceprensa, spoke with Fr Hans Zollner, a priest and expert in psychology, and a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

Aceprensa: What was the Commission for the Protection of Minors created for?  What are its specific competences?

Fr Hans Zollner: The Commission was established by the Pope (2014) with the intention to give a clear signal that the issue of sexual abuse within the Church had to be addressed.

As an autonomous group (we are linked to the Holy See, but not part of it), the members of the Commission were given a great deal of freedom to decide what its fields and method of work would be. We designed the statutes and came out with the working groups.

At first, there were more than a dozen, but we cut them down to six: contact with victims, guidelines, theological and liturgical questions arising from abuse, prevention in schools, legal procedures, education and formation. All of us are engaged in at least two of them, and we have external collaborators who help us in these tasks.

One important thing that many people don’t understand is that the Commission does not deal with individual cases or accusations. The Church already has tribunals to attend to that task.

We don’t have legal authority and that is not our field of expertise: among the original members of the commission there was only one canon lawyer and one civil lawyer. The rest of us have specialities in psychology, psychiatry, social work and theology.

Aceprensa: What have been the tangible outcomes of the Commission’s work so far?

Fr Zollner: I see three areas. First, we have developed a template for guidelines (which is now available to all dioceses and Orders/Congregations/Communities) on how the local Church should proceed if an allegation arises. The document is meant as help especially to the countries that lack the resources or experience to write some guidelines from scratch by themselves.

The second area is contact with victims. We have met some of them, and we have developed proposals on how they should be heard when they contact the religious authority.

And thirdly, members of the commission have been conducting about 250 workshops on sexual abuse in more than 50 countries, mostly in Africa, Asia and Latin-America, where this issue has received less attention in the Church and in society in general, and where, as a consequence, religious authorities are not as prepared as in places where these cases have caused a sense of urgency.

Moreover, the theology group has come out with a proposal to establish an annual day of prayer for the victims of sexual abuse.

Aceprensa: There has been some criticism that the Commission has not been as effective as intended, due to a lack of resources or conscientiousness, but also because of some kind of cultural resistance within the Holy See. What can you say about these accusations? What can be improved in the Commisssion’s work?

Fr Zollner: I think these are two different things, one about the work of the Commission and the other about the resistance from outside.

Regarding the first one, though I understand that for some people the pace of our work is not fast enough, I’d say that we have limited staff and economic resources. But as far as I know, all the budgetary requests that we have made to the Holy See as a Commission have been financed according to their criteria.

Regarding cultural resistance from within the Church, I do believe that in some quarters of the Vatican (the same can be said of some local churches) there hasn’t always been the understanding of the urgency of this issue, though I think this is changing.

Personally, I have not encountered resistance when, for my work at the Centre for Child Protection (Universitá Gregoriana), I have reached all kinds of dicasteries, and the cardinals who are the head of them, asking for any kind of help: they’ve always been very forthcoming. There is not always the pro-active attitude that some would expect (including myself), but once you get to them and follow the proper procedure, I haven’t found any difficulties.

It is true that some of the suggestions that we made as a Commission were not immediately enforced, as the one about writing a letter back to the victims that have made some allegations. The CDF told us that they lacked the manpower to respond to the victims in a way that would be helpful to them, not just saying: “Ok. We have received your message.”

Some people perceived this admission of inability by the Holy See as a form of resistance. I don’t think it necessarily is, but at the same time I think there is room for much improvement in the Church side. In fact, the new head of the discipline section of the CDF has made some comments about it, and a new model for replying the victims is being developed.

Aceprensa: You’ve admitted that the Church’s response to an abuse allegation should be more transparent, and that it would be better for all, both alleged victims and suspects. For some people, an obstacle to that transparency is the Pontifical Secret, which they interpret as if it gives the Church carte blanche not to investigate an accusation, or even to hide it. Is that its meaning?

Fr Zollner: The issue of pontifical secret is a very complex one, and I’m not an expert in it. But, as far as I know, its original meaning is that all parties within the canonical process, victims and alleged perpetrators, get the needed confidentiality so they are not exposed to the public, something that can be hurtful for all parties and for the process.

The pontifical secret is actually and originally what in legal terminology would be called the right to preserve the good name of all the parties involved in an investigation. But the media sometimes interpret it as if it forbade everyone in the church to report the cases to the police. This is wrong.

But I have to say that this error, to interpret secret as secrecy, is also present in some church members’ minds, who take it as a pretext to cover up the cases. This has to change.

Aceprensa: What does the Church say about cooperation with the civil authorities in a sexual abuse allegation? In your opinion, should it always refer the case to them?

Fr Zollner: In this topic, the CDF in 2011 clearly stated that every local Church has to follow the law of the corresponding country.  In France, any citizen has the obligation to report to civil authorities, in Germany not. Even within the same countries, the civil law is different among the states, as in Australia.

There is a huge and interesting debate on the usefulness of a general obligation to report. In Germany, in 2010, the federal parliament decided not to follow the recommendation of the justice minister to approve a general obligation. In the debate, some of the groups that were more concerned about the possible negative outcomes of such an obligation were the psychologists and victims of abuse (!).

It makes sense: for most victims it’s very difficult to come forward with accusations after a long time (the average time lapse between the abuse and its being denounced is about 20 years), so if you know that the person you are revealing your case to is obliged to immediately call the police, that might act as a discouraging measure.

There are different opinions. Mine is that, apart from legal obligation, there is also a moral obligation to report. In some countries, where the police or the justice system is more or less corrupt, so you can’t be sure what the effects of a report will be, referring the case to the police might not necessarily be the best option.

So, in general, the obligation to report to the civil authorities sounds right, but there are some complex and often dangerous issues that need to be taken into account.

Aceprensa: In some countries, a slowing down in the incidence of abuse cases has been happening in the last decades, after a peak in the 60s and 70s. Does it mean that prevention measures have improved since then? What factors of prevention have been proved more effective?

Fr Zollner: The peak that you mentioned is different in each country. In Australia, it seems to happened in the 50s; in my native Germany, it was in the early 70s; in the United States, it was in the 70s and 80s. But we definitely see that the incidence has been going down in the past few decades.

If you look to Canada, the US, Ireland, Germany or Australia, where for a number of years now the prevention measures have been very thorough, and public opinion has focused on this issue, the number of accusations of cases from the recent past has been going down very much.

This shows us, and it is a message I’ve been giving to bishops and local churches, that prevention works, safeguarding works. (Scientifically, we still don’t know the reasons why it works, and thus we still need research to come out with measures that are more effective, interculturally effective, also).

What seems clear is that, in terms of prevention, there are two major factors that need to be considered: the selection and the formation of candidates for priesthood and religious life; how you screen people before they are admitted to the seminary and how you accompany them in their initial but also their ongoing formation (the average age of a first time offending priest is around 39, much higher than a teacher, a sports trainer or a biological father when they first abuse).

In relation to this, I want to say that It’s not celibacy as such what constitutes a risk factor; celibacy is a risk when it is not well integrated in the priestly life.

Fernando Rodríguez-Borlado is an editor of Aceprensa, a Spanish magazine and MercatorNet partner site.