La Croix International [France]
June 9, 2022
By Vincent de Féligonde
The German Jesuit who is one of the Catholic Church’s leading experts on sex abuse and its prevention gives major lecture in Paris at the invitation of the French bishop
“I’m going to scandalize you,” Father Hans Zollner warned an audience in Paris this week.
“‘The Church’ does not exist. It is not a monolithic block,” the German Jesuit said Tuesday during a major lecture in the French capital.
“On the contrary, in the same room, same parish and same diocese you have victims and abusers – responsible people and irresponsible people,” he continued.
Zollner, who is director of the Institute of Anthropology at the Gregorian University in Rome and a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, was invited by the French bishops to speak about the clergy sex abuse crisis.
He brought to a close a cycle of four conferences that the three Catholic universities of Paris (the Centre Sèvres, the Collège des Bernardins and the Institut Catholique) organized around the theme “After CIASE, thinking together about the Church”.
CIASE, of course, is the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church, which last October issued a devastating report on decades of clergy sex abuse in France.
And the 55-year-old priest-psychologist shared his obsession on the issue – making sure people are clearly aware of how badly Church officials handled cases of abuse in the past so that those mistakes are never again repeated.
The same mistake was made
Zollner noted that the first cases of sexual abuse came to light some 40 years ago in the United States and Australia, and then in the Netherlands, Great Britain, Central Europe and now in Southern Europe.
“Now the whole world has heard about the horror of abuse and the failures of the hierarchy in the management of the problem,” he said.
“And now questions are being asked about why those in charge reacted the way they did, including the ‘untouchables’: bishops, cardinals and the pope himself,” the Jesuit continued.
“The same mistake was made, that of not listening to the victims,” he stressed.
“And the experience of this or that episcopal conference has not been transferred to the others,” he lamented.
But he also acknowledged that given there are “1.4 billion Catholics, 24 Churches, 5,300 bishops, 2,900 dioceses and an unknown number of religious congregations, it is very difficult to have a single strategy”.
He said this is made all the more difficult because of differences in culture from one region to another.
“In Africa, in families, villages, tribes, sexuality is taboo. Even more so when it concerns authority figures, such as priests. In Asia, saving face is vital for living together. And criticizing an authority figure was impossible until recently,” Zollner pointed out.
The paradoxes of the Church
He also underlined that there are many paradoxes in the Catholic Church.
First of all, there is the paradox of a system of government marked by a “strange tension between authoritarianism and a lack of clear rules, a lack of personal accountability”.
He said the synodal process initiated by Pope Francis must help “us to get out of this back and forth between high and low”.
But Zollner also insisted that this is not a question of relinquishing all power.
“The question is above all how we control power. The greater the power one has, the more that person should be held accountable,” he said.
A second paradox is that despite John Paul II’s 1992 apostolic exhortation Pastores dabo vobis that “human formation (is) the basis of all priestly formation”, the Church seems to invest more in the intellectual formation of its clerics than in their human formation.
“It takes more than six years to train a professor of the Old Testament, and six weeks for a seminary superior,” Zollner pointed out.
“What is the focus of our attention: our institutions and our reputation or the victim, the vulnerable, the other and the Wholly-Other?” he asked.
The Rome-based Jesuit priest and psychologist said it’s not enough to change norms. Rather, there must be a true conversion that engages spirituality and theology.
“I await the moment when we understand that caring for victims is at the heart of our ministry,” he told his Paris audience.