ONE of the Church’s front-line fighters against child sexual abuse, German Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, has singled out Australia as a country where “people have lost trust completely” in the Church.
“There seems to be almost nil trust in what the Church says,” Fr Zollner, president of the Centre for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, said.
“This is not true in other parts of the world. I think you are in a pretty unique situation.”
Fr Zollner gave the frank assessment while speaking to church workers during a visit to Brisbane about the safeguarding of minors.
In a presentation entitled “Ecclesial significance of clerical sexual abuse – a worldwide view”, he shared his experience, observations and reflections on how the Church faced this scourge of abuse globally, and what was being done in terms of safeguarding.
Appointed by Pope Francis as founding member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in 2014, Fr Zollner has travelled to 50 countries on six continents, and he said this has given him an insight and a “feeling” for the worldwide Church.
In Brisbane he also held sessions with bishops and vicar generals from Australian dioceses as well as priests, teachers and parish leaders.
“We need to clean up our own courtyard, and we need to be responsible for what has happened and what is happening at this moment,” Fr Zollner said.
“There has been abuse committed … and this has been a major issue for the local Church for the last 30 years and especially for five years with the Royal Commission.
“This is a reality the Church has to deal with. It is not only the leaders in the Church, until now mostly priests… but it concerns all of you, who identify with the crimes and sins that have been committed.”
Fr Zollner has met Australian survivors of abuse twice in Rome – during the hearings of Cardinal George Pell by the Royal Commission – and last year met some of those survivors during a visit to Ballarat.
“Listening to a survivor only once changes your heart if you really listen,” Fr Zollner said.
“Because you realise the depth of the suffering, the pain and the harm that has been done.”
Fr Zollner has a wide brief in his child protection work.
It includes contact with survivors, the formation of Church leaders, teaching in spirituality and theology, overseeing legal procedures within the Church, and producing educational material for schools and families.
With the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse due to hand down its final report with findings and recommendations on December 15, he said the Church in Australia would face many challenges.
He described the “trauma exposure” suffered by many faithful church workers because of the public scandal and shame associated with abuse cases.
He stressed the faithful needed to maintain a welcoming attitude towards abuse survivors, find a source of hope through honest prayer and grounded spirituality, and maintain a sense of community and “Catholic” networks.
Fr Zollner said while many countries in Europe and North America had been dealing for some years with effectively safeguarding sexual abuse, most countries were still yet to grapple with the issue.
“It has not yet hit the surface of public interest and discussion and news in 75 per cent of countries, if not more,” he said.
“I cannot say where or when it will hit, but it will hit.”