"Coming to terms with abuse is at the top of the Pope's list of priorities," says Father Hans Zollner. He is helping to prepare the Vatican meeting of all presidents of the bishops' conferences and knows what answers must be found there.
Interviewer: It is important for you to say that this meeting of bishops in February is not a conference on abuse. What is it then?
Father Hans Zollner (Director of the Child Protection Center at the Gregorian University and member of the Pope's Child Protection Commission): It is a conference that will look at how we in the Church can deal with all the ies that concern the legal side and ecclesiastical prosecution. It is also about clarifying responsibilities and getting everything in place so that the church leadership at the world level – that is, all the bishops, all the particular churches and the religious congregations – actually start from the same premises.
Interviewer: Countries like Germany or the USA are already active in these efforts. In which countries, then, something still has to happen?
Zollner: It must be said that in very many countries in Africa, Asia and parts of Latin America, awareness of the urgency of dealing with ies of sexual abuse in the Church is far from developed. Just as there is no such awareness in the societies there by far, there is also no such awareness in the Church. Although we have made a lot of great and promising progress in the last eight years – especially in areas where, for example, there is no professional training for prevention officers and no real training for church staff. There you still have to go.
But it is not only about these concrete things that must follow. It is also about the leadership of the local churches being aware of their respective responsibilities and that we come to transparent action worldwide.
Interviewer: Pope Francis basically wants to hand over more responsibility to national bishops' conferences. What kind of decisions can be made at all on the world church level at this conference in February?
Zollner: The most important question is how charges against perpetrators of abuse can be resolved at the respective regional or national level. But what is also pending is the question of what to do if a bishop or a provincial does not implement the relevant guidelines of the bishops' conference or the respective religious community. This is a problem that has not really been addressed so far, because it has been amed that the bishops, provincials or other superiors will comply with it. This is just not the case. Also because there are theological and canonical things involved that have not been clarified and that must be addressed.
This has only become so virulent in recent months, which is also related in a certain sense to the whole "MeToo movement". It has been noticed that not only the question of abuse, but also the question of cover-up and complicity in abuse must be punished decisively. There are hardly any possibilities under church law, except for the pope himself to intervene. But that is at 5.100 bishops worldwide de facto hardly possible.
Interviewer: They have been sitting on the preparatory committee since this week. What exactly is being prepared for the conference in February?
Zollner: All the logistics have to be planned. We are very glad that the Holy See, with the Secretariat of State, has taken the lead. We clarify all the feedback on the invitation letter. The question of security must be considered. We want the presidents of the bishops' conferences and the leaders of the particular churches, i.e. the Eastern churches of the Oriental rites, to be able to prepare themselves accordingly. Therefore, we will also send out corresponding documents.
We also want to get feedback from these participants on questions such as which cultural factors play a role in their region when it comes to risk factors or protective factors.
Then, of course, it's about the whole program itself. We are in consultations with experts, lay people and victims of abuse, and we are asking them what topics they would like to see addressed. Finally, we must see how we can incorporate and implement this methodologically well.
Interviewer: Is it already possible to say whether the victims themselves will be involved, or is it still too early for that??
Zollner: No. It has been said that those affected will be involved. To what extent they want to be named publicly must be left up to them.
Interviewer: Is it the first time that the Pope has resorted to this step and invited the presidents of the national bishops' conferences. What is the significance of such a step actually being taken now??
Zollner: It is a very big sign that for the first time ever a meeting of this kind is being organized. As far as I know, this has not happened before, that all presidents of the Latin bishops' conferences, all leaders of the Eastern Churches who are connected to Rome, as well as the prefects of the most important Roman dicasteries, i.e. the ministries of the church leadership in Rome, and the representations of religious women and men, i.e. superiors general, will be represented.
It shows that the pope has put the ie high on the priority list.
The interview was conducted by Renardo Schlegelmilch.