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Member of Vatican abuse commission says ‘put victims first’

Pope Francis on Saturday named eight people with reputations as reformers in the fight against child sexual abuse as members of a new “Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors,” a line-up that includes German Jesuit Fr. Hans Zollner, who’s long been on the front lines of the church’s recovery efforts.

Born in the Bavarian city of Regensburg, more or less the hometown of Pope Benedict XVI, Zollner serves as the academic vice-rector of the Jesuit-run Gregorian University in Rome and head of its Institute of Psychology. He holds degrees in philosophy and theology, and was licensed as a psychologist and psychotherapist in 2004.

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In 2010 and 2011 he served as a member of the scientific working group of the “Round Table on Child Abuse” created by Germany’s federal government. Zollner has studied the church’s rocky history on the abuse issue at length, publishing the 2010 book, “The Church and Pedophilia – An Open Wound: A Psychological and Pastoral Approach along with fellow Jesuit Fr. Giovanni Cucci.”

In 2012, Zollner was chair of the organizing committee for a major international summit on the sex abuse crisis held at the Gregorian, and co-sponsored by several Vatican departments. Among other things, that summit marked the debut of a “Center for Child Protection” and an e-learning curriculum for church practitioners, intended to distill “best practices” in preventing abuse, detecting it when it occurs, responding to it in terms of civil and canon law, and reaching out to victims.

Zollner spoke to the Globe on March 22 about the Vatican’s new anti-abuse commission.

What’s the importance of this commission?

It’s clear that the Holy Father wants to go ahead, so things are in a stage in which we can move forward. When you read the announcement, our first task will be to assist the Holy See in finding other people who can be involved as well as to set up statutes for the commission and to develop a plan of action.

It’s a sign that Pope Francis is personally engaged?

Of course, certainly.

What do you make of the line-up of members?

There’s a good number of women, and there’s also a victim. That’s hugely significant, because it means that the voice of a victim will be heard directly rather than being filtered through someone else. There’s also a good mix of specialties, with experts in canon law, different kinds of psychiatry and psychology, and moral theology. We have the political level of representation with Hanna Suchocka, we have expertise in family dynamics and incest with Catherine Bonnet, and we have insight on abuse among vulnerable groups with Sheila Hollins, who’s an expert in abuse of handicapped persons.

For the moment, only the Americas and Europe are represented, though with Hanna Suchocka we at least have someone from Eastern Europe. I think that’s mostly to make it easier for this first group to get together. Fairly soon I imagine we’ll be looking to add people from other countries and continents.

How many people do you think will eventually make up the commission?

That’s one of the things we have to discuss, and there are different models. Given the broad issues laid out by the Vatican statement, one can image a small standing group, maybe 15 people or so, working with a larger network of advisers and experts in specific areas.

By naming you, the pope presumably wants the experience of the “Towards Healing and Renewal” conference you organized in 2012 to be part of the basis for the commission’s work. What lessons did you learn?

First of all, there has to be an unwavering commitment to putting the victims first. The church also has to do whatever is in its power and ability to prevent future abuse.

From my point of view, it’s clear that this commission is not a legislative body and won’t take away authority from any existing Vatican department. It’s meant to assist the work of the Holy See and to foster discussions in various parts of the world. That’s another reason why I think the pope wanted to appoint at least some members from outside Europe, for instance someone from Latin America, because the church has to deal with this issue in a wider scope. We have to make sure this issue is at the top of the priority list in all parts of the world.

What does it mean to deal with the sex abuse issue in a global way?

For one thing, North Americans and Europeans have to realize that not only do cultural sensitivities differ from one region or continent to another, but so do legal systems. I find there’s a common mistake in a lot of American statements in presupposing that the American legal system applies in all parts of the world, which simply isn’t true.

To take an example, I read again and again in a lot of American commentary that there should be an absolute duty to report charges of abuse to the police. The fact is, that requirement doesn’t exist in more than half the countries of the world, and there can be good reasons why not. In Germany, the former Minister of Justice suggested such a requirement and was opposed by both victims of abuse as well as organizations of psychotherapists, who were concerned not only about protecting confidentiality but also the risk of re-traumatization. We have to listen to what the victims think, rather than imposing our solutions.

It’s sometimes said that the church’s anti-abuse efforts are farthest along in places such as Europe and North America where the scandals have been the most intense, while the rest of the Catholic world remains behind the curve. Is that still the case?

That’s not true everywhere. Many bishops’ conferences in English-speaking Africa, for instance, have done a good job and today are significantly ahead of other social institutions and even the state. Kenya is a good example. The same thing is true of parts of Asia, where the Philippines now have good prevention and educational programs in place. That said, I think this will be one concern for the commission, to help bishops’ conferences and other Catholic groups to make this a priority by developing strong guidelines and really implementing them.

The situation is quite different from one country to another, because there are different sensitivities and ways of approaching the issue. It’s important for Westerners who have dealt with this issue for decades not to think we have the only possible approach. We really have to listen, just as people in areas that haven’t dealt with this issue very much need to listen to our experiences. It has to be about mutual listening. If we do that maybe something wonderful can result, which would be that the Catholic church becomes a global frontrunner in child protection, as it already is in some countries.

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