Courageous Conversation Follow-Up: Fr. Hans Zollner Addresses More Audience Questions

On March 4, Awake hosted Fr. Hans Zollner, SJ, considered one of the Vatican’s leading experts on safeguarding, for a virtual panel discussion with two survivors of clergy sexual abuse. A recording of the event is available here. Because we ran out of time to address all questions posed by victim-survivors in the audience, Zollner (above, top left) agreed to answer a few more in writing, covering topics including seminary formation, the need for transparency in canonical processes, and the use of the term “vulnerable adults.”  

A few weeks after the Awake event, Zollner resigned from his position as a founding member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which advises Pope Francis about safeguarding efforts in the Catholic Church. In a statement about his resignation, Zollner shared specific concerns related to the commission’s approach to “responsibility, compliance, accountability and transparency.”

Seminary Formation

Question from Awake: What can and should be done in seminary formation to prevent abuse, address clericalism, and train priests to properly respond to abuse survivors?

Fr. Hans Zollner: As expressed in the Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis, good information and specific courses on the protection of minors and vulnerable adults are necessary, but this alone is not enough. A solid human formation is needed in seminaries to foster the integral human development. Human maturity not only helps to prevent priests from committing sexual, power, and conscience abuses, but also to have a healthy, chaste, and celibate life, in which one lives healthy and appropriate relationships. 

This is not only important during the seminary formation, but throughout priestly life. Unfortunately—and I know of many seminaries and formation houses around the world—this area very often is not given due importance, which is harmful in the medium and long term. We have seen that some priests (and their bishops or provincials) believe that once they have been ordained, they no longer need further formation, or they say that they do not have time for it. However, priests are constantly required to face new situations and challenges. For that they need to be trained and to know their limits and when they need to refer someone to a competent person for professional attention or care.

Human formation is crucial in the prevention of abuse, but also in responding adequately to abuse survivors. That has been repeated over and over again since Pope John Paul II’s document Pastores dabo vobis (1992) on priestly formation, and most recently in the Ratio Fundamentalis from 2016. Yet we realize today that such norms and guidelines are not enough. It is only through formation that we can promote a change of mentality so that “we” as Church and “I” as a priest put the wellbeing of the most vulnerable ones first.

In this sense, I would like to mention some of the key points in priestly formation:

1. The first would be quality rather than quantity. A good priest can do a lot of good; a single priest who is hurting people and the Gospel’s message lacks credibility, becomes a reason for scandal, and can cause great harm to many people and to the People of God.

2. Secondly, the importance of good accompaniment, both in vocational discernment and throughout the whole period of formation. This is of utmost importance in vocation.

3. Thirdly, more time and an individualized formation itinerary is needed. At present, people who aspire to work in the Church have many talents and skills, but show other areas that are less developed, especially those needed to live in places such as parish communities. They should be closely accompanied in those areas that have not been sufficiently developed (such as personal prayer and spiritual life, or interpersonal relationships lived in a trusting and responsible way).

4. Fourthly, dioceses and religious institutes need formators sufficiently prepared for this task. 

By investing in human formation, we will be able to live and act consistently with the spirit of Jesus, giving favor to the most vulnerable among us. This is also what we work for at the Institute of Anthropology of the Pontifical Gregorian University through our formation programs. 

Transparency in Canonical Processes

Question from Awake: One survivor asked why the Church is often unwilling to share information with victim-survivors about the canonical process in their own cases. She wrote: “This process is incredibly painful for victims who have come forward to report, who could greatly benefit from receiving some element of closure in relation to the reporting process.” Is there any movement toward greater transparency about canonical processes?

Fr. Hans Zollner: Many victims of clerical sexual abuse experience the persistent and consistent impression that they are not listened to and receive neither the pastoral and spiritual assistance they need, nor desired clarity about any canonical proceedings. Many, in fact, describe this sense of being ignored as having a more harmful impact on their life and any possible journey towards healing and reconciliation than the original abuse. This impression of disbelief makes it extremely difficult for many survivors to overcome the spiritual, psychological, and physical challenges arising from the actual act(s) of abuse. 

While Church authorities have repeatedly emphasized their commitment to the interests of victims, an accompanying paradigm shift in the area of canonical penal law and procedure has not yet taken place. The victim’s perspective is still essentially largely ignored. To be clear, the accused and their superiors are also very often left in the dark about where the process is in terms of progress and about the reasons for coming to a verdict.

We need to look into how letters from victim-survivors or allegations are received and acknowledged. The reform of the Code VI of Canon Law has been a step forward, but according to many victims and survivors not satisfactory enough. I am not a canon lawyer, but I think that we need to look again at the procedures and processes. Unfortunately, change, especially change of culture and mentality behind such lacunae happens very slowly.

Overcoming Resistance To Change

Question from Awake: You have spoken about the “fortress mentality” among church leaders that can slow progress in addressing systemic issues. What approaches do you believe are most effective in overcoming resistance and changing hearts and minds of leaders in the Church? And are there common approaches that you find don’t work and instead create further obstacles?

Fr. Hans Zollner: When speaking about abuse, we have seen that part of the problem is the existence of a closed church system, or “fortress mentality” when its members seek to protect the institution more than the harmed individual.

Common approaches that don’t work and instead create further obstacles are cover-up and neglect. This provokes a double crisis: the abuse crisis itself and the scandal of hiding it or covering it up. We have seen many examples of this in all parts of the world.

The most effective approach in overcoming resistance and changing hearts and minds of leaders in the Church is listening. When one listens to victims, he/she understands that the issue of abuse prevention should not be a separate issue but should be an integral part of the Church’s mission. It is the conversion of hearts that brings fruits that are translated into concrete actions. But actions do not take place at the same time in all parts of the world. The February 2019 meeting of Presidents of Bishops Conferences and others in the Vatican raised awareness about abuses in the local Churches. I have seen a change of attitude in some bishops’ conferences in countries I have visited, which have gone from saying that abuse did not exist in their territories to realizing that this was not true and committing themselves to fight against it. This awareness has been growing among both church authorities and the faithful. But there is still a lot of resistance and a very long way to go.

Formation is key in this process of changing minds and hearts. But it is not something you do once and tick off the list. It is necessary to offer formation that is permanent and sustainable over time, not only to those in positions of authority like the bishops, but to all levels of the Church: from seminaries and novitiates to houses of formation, parishes, schools, pastoral centers, etc.

At the Institute of Anthropology of the Pontifical Gregorian University we try to contribute to formation through our blended learning program and our residential programs in Rome: a five-month certificate course (diploma) in Spanish and English and a two-year licentiate (master’s degree) in English. The students are priests, religious, or lay people who have been sent by their bishops, their superiors, or the institutions they work for. They receive multidisciplinary training in topics including theology, sociology, psychology, and canon law, to better understand their future work, because they will be responsible for safeguarding in the local Churches.

What We Can Do at the Parish Level

Question from Awake: We spoke in March on a global scale, but some people in the audience asked for your thoughts on what they can do on the local level, in their own parish, to both prevent abuse and work toward healing.

Fr. Hans Zollner: We need to be aware that safeguarding is a task that involves all of us as people of God. Each of us can do something as his/her own reality. We need to ask ourselves, “How can I be part of the integral mission of the Church of protecting the most vulnerable ones?” As followers of Jesus Christ we have the responsibility to do so. 

We need to start, always, by listening to victims. Active listening is not just an exercise of empathy and goodwill, but is about understanding to what extent sexual abuse or any other kind of abuse (of power or conscience) affects a person’s life, accompanying them, and welcoming their suggestions to prevent abuse from happening again.

If we come to know of a possible case of abuse, we have to commit ourselves to report it. We need to be aware of the limits of our competencies in helping someone and refer them to professionals that will be in a better position to help the person: psychologists, social workers, pastoral workers, civil and/or canon lawyers, etc.

And here again, formation is key. We can promote the organization of formation courses at the local level, in our parishes or communities, to learn together how to adequately relate to victims and secondary victims, what balanced relationships look like, and how to create safe and healthy environments. We can organize a day of prayer for victims or talks or conferences to raise awareness about the topic.

The Meaning of “Vulnerable Adults”

Question from Awake: Some participants in March’s conversation, especially those who experienced abuse as adults, were left a bit confused by your comments about “vulnerable adults.” Could you say something more about how you think the Church should approach and evaluate situations when an adult experiences sexually abusive behavior by a member of the clergy or other religious leader? Why do you think it’s better to talk about specific situations where a person is at risk, rather than use the label “vulnerable person”?

Fr. Hans Zollner: Since the last reforms of canon law, we do not only refer to minors or to those with imperfect use of reason as victims, but we consider that any adult person can be victim of abuse of any kind, i.e., abuse of power and spiritual abuse. In the case of children, their physical, emotional and psychological vulnerability is a given legal and practical reality that does not require any further assessment after verifying the date of birth. But the vulnerability of adults does require assessment.

The term “vulnerable adult” according to VELM Art 1 §2 n.(b) refers to “any person in a state of infirmity, physical or mental deficiency, or deprivation of personal liberty which, in fact, even occasionally, limits their ability to understand or to want the offense or to otherwise limits their ability to resist the offense.” The definition is probably purposefully kept very open in its definition and, for many, creates some confusion around its scope and applicability. Otherwise we wouldn’t have this discussion. As I said, I myself have not reached a level of clarity of what it really means, to whom it applies, and when.

To be clear, abuse against adult persons should be seen and reported as such, and it is evident that there are many victims of sexual, psychological, and emotional abuse inside Church settings. My question, however, is this: if the definition is as broad as it is now, including basically every human person (as all of us may find ourselves occasionally in “states of infirmity” that can limit our “ability to resist the offense” at least to some degree), then do we really need any such term? Would it not be enough – as somebody wrote to me after the online meeting – to state that any type of abuse against victims of any age, 0 to 100, are crimes? As true as this affirmation is, what is then the sense of stating that there are groups of people or people in particular situations of risk, that require a particular privilege in law? I surely think that is a good reason to talk about vulnerability of adults, and that it is good that we have a point of reference to start to discuss this. What could be the unintended (psychological and other) consequences of indiscriminately labeling people as vulnerable on the basis of belonging to a certain category of people? How much could this be seen or experienced as paternalistic and patronizing behavior? Indeed, victims have shared differing perspectives on this with me.

In any case, the voices of adult victims and survivors are very much needed when trying to clarify this further and in speaking about how the Church should approach and evaluate situations of (sexually) abusive behavior by clergy or religious of an adult. Only if there is acknowledgement of the pain as well as serious commitment to provide for a just response and for consistent and effective safeguarding, can we hope for a safer Church and a safer world.

2 thoughts on “Courageous Conversation Follow-Up: Fr. Hans Zollner Addresses More Audience Questions

  1. Fr. Zollner’s responses indicate how knowledgeable he is regarding the issues around the clerical environment and fortress mentality in the Church! How much more troubling it is that his nearly contemporaneous resignation from the head job in the Vatican regarding abuse was with his responses to Awake! It is another indicator of the dis function at the highest ranks of the Church which must be very frustrating for someone so knowledgeable and honest to be working for.

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