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Expert picked by Pope to fight child sexual abuse visiting Brisbane to talk with priest, bishops, and laity

Fr Hans Zollner and Archbishop Mark Coleridge

Timley visit: Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, a psychologist and member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, with Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge following a session with Australian Bishops and priests. Photo: Emilie Ng

BRISBANE will host a public seminar by one of the Church’s front-line fighters against child sexual abuse, German Jesuit Father Hans Zollner.

With a reputation as a reformer, Pope Francis named Fr Zollner, together with Irish child abuse survivor Marie Collins as founding members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in 2014.

Fr Zollner is president of the Centre for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

Ms Collins’ resignation from the Commission earlier this year sent shock waves through the Church, however, the Vatican-based Jesuit has stuck with the Commission’s work training Church officials and bishops’ conferences worldwide about safeguarding children.

Fr Zollner spoke to The Catholic Leader about his visit to Australia, including Brisbane where he spoke to bishops and priests, and will hold public session which parishioners were urged to attend.

Could you describe your mission to Australia?

I have been invited by Archbishop (Mark) Coleridge and Archbishop (Philip) Wilson (Adelaide) to present on the situation of safeguarding efforts worldwide and, I guess, from a “Roman” point of view.

I have been privileged to travel to about 50 countries on six continents, and being member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors has given me the great opportunity to get an insight and a “feeling” for the worldwide Church.

I was in Sydney, Canberra and Ballarat last year, meeting with Church personnel, government officials, university professors and – most important for me – meeting again with survivors of abuse in Ballarat.

I had met them twice in Rome, during the hearings of Cardinal (George) Pell by the Royal Commission, and was impressed to see what has been achieved by them in terms of safeguarding in St Alipius’ and St Patrick’s in Ballarat.

And this is as important for me as presenting my points – I would like to listen, to learn, to pray with the people who will attend these sessions.

What can parishioners, lay leaders, youth ministry members hope to learn from attending your talks: “Ecclesial significance of clerical abuse a worldwide view” and “Theological and Spiritual aspects of the abuse crisis”?

I would like to share my experience, observations and reflections on how the Church faces this scourge of abuse, and what is being done in terms of safeguarding.

In the second presentation, I will underline the “forgotten dimension”, the theological and spiritual implications of abuse, first of all the spiritual trauma that many survivors have described to me as the most severe trauma they have suffered.

But then there is the very strange phenomenon that Church leaders and faithful concentrate in their reactions often on (canon and civil) law as well as on psychology and psychiatry.

Yet the inherent spiritual and theological questions have not yet been addressed.

There are huge challenges in terms of our image of God (theology), our image of the Church (ecclesiology) and our understanding of redemption (soteriology) – to name only a few of the major issues that we have to grapple with.

How did you feel about the resignation of Marie Collins from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors?

I was very sad. I was really shocked. We were founding members of the commission set up by the Pope in 2014, and since then we had gone through many discussions, many frustrations and made some progress. I tried to ask her calmly what we could do so that we can still complete the (three-year) term (of membership of the PCPM), but she expressed clearly that she could not go on anymore.

There has been criticism that the Commission’s work is progressing too slowly?

From my point of view, compared to the normal pace of change in the Church, we have made progress in a relatively short time, but compared to some expectations it is not enough.

People expect things to change faster, and many can’t stand it anymore when they hear over and over again that there are still bishops who don’t act swiftly and consistently, or where there are still horrible cases of abuse that come to light.

Yet, as I see in my encounters in many countries around the globe, much more than one can see if one looks only from one’s own country’s perspective has changed for the better compared to five years ago when we had the symposium at the Gregorian University where almost all bishops conferences were represented, for the first time.

You can talk about this subject publicly now in places like Malaysia, Malawi, Mexico or Slovakia and Poland.

How would you describe the work of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors?

Many people don’t see what has been concretely achieved because it’s groundwork and sometimes in remote parts of the world – for example the hundreds of formation sessions with all kinds of leaders, Church personnel and the faithful – so people are not very aware of it.

But this, for me, is not the main result of the three and half years of the first mandate of the Commission.

The main message was, and is, that dealing with abuse cases and committing to safeguarding has primary importance for the pope and for the Holy See.

This commission was not there three and a half years ago, it will continue in one way or another, we will see what the decision taken by the Pope ultimately will be, and who the members will be.

I certainly hope that the work that has been done in contact with survivors, in the formation of Church leaders, in the field of drafting guidelines, in spirituality and theology, in the area of legal procedures within the Church, and in the educational field in schools and families, will be intensified and will spread out more and more.

How many cases are being handled and how much work is to do? I understand there are as many as 2000 cases of alleged abuse of minors by priests yet to be dealt with or concluded.

The institution charged with this, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has ten persons who deal with 400-500 allegations per year, and they must read each case, get clarification where necessary and then make a recommendation.

This lack of personnel is not due to the bad will of the CDF or of the Pope.

One reason for the limited number of personnel is the fact that there are very few trained penal canon lawyers.

Recently more are being trained in this area, but the CDF doesn’t yet have enough trained personnel to deal with all the cases.

We see this lack of trained personnel in other places too.

In the Philippine Bishops Conference, for example, there are very few persons with a doctorate or licentiate in canon law.

There are bishops, who are responsible for a hundred islands, who don’t have even one canon lawyer.

Fr Zollner will hold a session open to Brisbane parishioners at Clairvaux MacKillop College, Upper Mount Gravatt, on Saturday, September 2 from 9am to 4pm. All parish staff, volunteers, pastoral councillors and parish and youth ministry co-ordinators have been urged to attend.

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