Hans Zollner © Romano Siciliani (CBA)
Child abuse is still not sufficiently worked up by the Vatican – this reproach raises the journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi. Jesuit Hans Zollner, member of the papal commission for child protection, sees massive research deficiencies.
Interviewer: In his new book "Luria" (Voluptuousness), the Italian journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi accuses the Vatican of a lack of transparency in dealing with abuses. What do you say to this accusation??
Father Hans Zollner (director of the Child Protection Center at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and member of the Pontifical Commission for Child Protection): In my opinion, the concern of the book is very good. It highlights things that we have been working on for years and that we insist on again and again, both with the authorities here in the Vatican and in the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Children. We continue to need better transparency in the trials, both for those affected and for those accused. In addition, the cases need to be dealt with more quickly.
Interviewer: So it's good that the book once again sums up everything and triggers public discussions again?
Zollner: Of course! However, the book has two major shortcomings: it unfortunately stops in its stocktaking in 2014 – at the very most in early 2015. Moreover, this time, in contrast to his previous book (on the economic cases in the Vatican authorities), the author does not present any documents, but merely refers to what has been known for some time already. Especially in relation to allegations against priests here in Italy. This somewhat discredits the whole book, because allegations floating around have been known in Rome for months, but have not been corroborated by evidence – and won't be now.
Interviewer: Among close associates of Pope Francis are people such as Cardinal Pell, who is suspected of covering up abuse cases in his native Australia. And then there is the case of a convicted priest who was laicized under Pope Benedict, but is said to have been readmitted to the priesthood under Francis. Do such incidents not counteract the credibility of reappraisal and prevention?
Zollner: Of course, this is damaging to the public image of the Church. I cannot say anything about the case of the Italian priest that was mentioned, because I am not involved in the legal proceedings. On Cardinal Pell, on the other hand, I can say a few things because about ten months ago I spent five hours talking to people from the school who were affected and who had made the allegations of abuse cover-up against Cardinal Pell. They had traveled to Italy specifically when Cardinal Pell was being questioned here in Rome by the Royal Commission from Australia. I was also on the ground in Australia at the end of July, meeting once again with those affected and learning about the school's prevention program; all this while the allegations against Cardinal Pell were once again making their way through the national media.
But there has been no conviction to date, either by the Royal Commission, or by other police forces in Australia or elsewhere. In this respect, we must state: The accusations against Cardinal Pell obviously refer to presumptions and unproven accusations, legally nothing has come of it. So contrary to the impression that may have been given to the outside world, there are no facts against Cardinal Pell, there is not a single accusation. This does not mean that the suspicion against him has been removed. But according to the rules of our rule of law, everything is unproven so far.
Interviewer: Fittipaldi, meanwhile, accuses the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Children of meeting too infrequently and of being unable to show any success in its work so far. What is your record?
Zollner: This is one of the factors that, as a member of this child protection commission, of course directly concern us. The book claims that we have only met three or four times. This is definitely wrong. In fact, we have met eight times as a whole group, and dozens of times in various working groups. That's exactly one of the factors why I think the book didn't really take in the situation since 2015 and didn't take into account that I think the commission has had great success in some other things.
For example, the last time we were invited to speak to the new bishops from around the world, who each have their induction courses here in Rome, was on the topics of prevention of abuse and intervention and the processes to be followed. In the past two years alone, we have held some 70 to 80 training sessions on this subject for bishops' conferences, religious superiors' assemblies, heads of Catholic schools, rectors of Catholic universities or other academic institutions. It all goes back to the initiative of the Pontifical Commission for Child Protection. In my opinion, this has now created a climate worldwide that the topic of intervention and prevention of abuse in the church is on the table and can no longer be brushed aside. I think that is the great effect that this commission has produced.
Also, in the last two years we have seen the Pope write two very clear letters to all the bishops; one from 2.2.2015 and the most recent one from 28.12.2016. In the letters, in very clear, unambiguous terms, he exhorted all bishops not to appoint priests who have been convicted or who are suspected of abuse. Moreover, in these letters Francis has also once again called for transparency – towards the public and in the proceedings. There is still a lot to do. Especially if we look at the worldwide situation.
In Germany, in Central Europe, we've only had the public discussion for seven years, although some of the problems go back decades. In other parts of the world, for various cultural and political reasons, the discussion has not yet arrived at all. The commission consists of members from all continents and from many fields; we are trying to put this ie on the agenda of local churches worldwide. That is our big effort. And I believe that for the short time that this commission has been in existence, we have something to show for it.
Interviewer: Fittipaldi is particularly critical of the way the Catholic Church in Italy deals with abuse: only a few dioceses have abuse commissioners, and bishops are said to have continued to use priests in pastoral care even though they had a criminal record or were suspected of sexual abuse. Shouldn't new Vatican legislation facilitate action against such cases??
Zollner: The Italian Church has certainly not been very active on this ie over the last few years. I can say, however, that since the last four months there have been events, or have already been carried out, that indicate a gradual change of attitude, also in Italy, among the bishops and among the provincials. So there too the message is getting through!
Besides, it is not as if the Pope has introduced new legislation. It has been around for a long time. The bishops know what they have to do, that has been clearly prescribed by Rome. The problem is that they often don't do it. Sometimes because they themselves are not familiar with the jurisdiction or they just drag it out or don't pursue it for personal or institutional reasons. What the pope has done is to make clear once again the existing jurisprudence and also to threaten bishops that they will have to expect church punishments if they do not follow it. This, by the way, already had the effect before and with the announcement that some bishops were deposed, precisely for these reasons.
Interviewer: Wouldn't it be better to leave the processing to an institution that works independently of the Curia and the bishops, instead of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith??
Zollner: For one thing, it has to be said that church jurisdiction, after all, does not replace state jurisdiction. That's one of the big misconceptions that always circulate, that people think that the church just wants to deal with this for itself and always keeps it under wraps. It has been clearly stated in a letter from the time of Pope Benedict in 2011 to all the Episcopal Conferences of the world that the bishops must cooperate with the state authorities – and in accordance with the laws of each state. There is no evasion, the recent statements of Pope Francis have confirmed this once again. So what a bishop knows, he has to report to the respective law enforcement authorities according to the laws of his country. In this respect, it is already guaranteed that there is an external body, completely outside the Church, that investigates these cases.
One of the big tactical problems in prosecution is that there are far too few church criminal lawyers within the church. If you want to conduct trials against priests who have committed a crime in such a way that they are legally valid, then you need well-trained people. There are far too few of them, if we look at the whole world. In this respect, there needs to be a central authority that can actually handle these cases well. I think there definitely needs to be greater decentralization of these powers in the future, because it's simply not acceptable that bishops can shirk their responsibilities and say, we don't have the people who are well trained to do this, so we'll send the cases to Rome.
We need – and our commission is working on this – clearer, more stringent and more transparent rules of procedure. This can be done, once it's in place, by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith just as well as by any other authority. We are acting in an international context. We are talking about an institution, the Catholic Church, which is represented in 200 countries. We have to look carefully at how we can act in accordance with the respective local jurisdiction; how, for example, the personal rights of the victims and the accused can be respected; how documents can be passed on without affecting these personal rights. How can people be informed quickly enough? How can interrogation procedures be set up discreetly but at the same time clearly enough?? These are questions we are now facing.
I believe that there will be many changes in the next few years and I do not exclude that in a few years we will also have a much greater involvement of external experts and institutions to look at it. This is already happening in Australia at the moment, where such an external commission, though also appointed by the Catholic Church, is looking at the cases.
Interviewer: And Fittipaldi's book may now be an impetus to get all this moving a little faster?
Zollner: It can be. I hope it will have that effect. However, the things that are not accurately researched or that — for whatever reason — are not accurately portrayed will, of course, give ammunition to people who oppose efforts at transparency and zero tolerance to say, "Look, there are false things being claimed here, so this is all not to be taken so seriously!" Unfortunately, such a book can have such an effect.
The interview was conducted by Hilde Regeniter