The church’s legal procedures for dealing with abusers have to change, expert says

A protest banner that says in Spanish, "Yes, Francis, here there is proof," hangs near the cathedral in Lima, Peru, Jan. 21. The banner protests Pope Francis' defense of Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno, Chile, who is accused of protecting a priest the Vatican found guilty of sexual abuse of minors. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

ROME (CNS) -- Even though the Catholic Church has all the necessary norms and laws in place to safeguard minors from abuse by clergy, the problem continues to be a lack in understanding or caring about those rules and guidelines and applying them effectively, said one Jesuit expert.

But what must change, "without a doubt," are church procedures for handling accusations of abuse, said Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, head of the Pontifical Gregorian University's Center for Child Protection.


The legal process "must be more transparent and more transparent for everyone," including the victims, the accused and his or her superiors, Father Zollner told reporters Feb. 9 at a ceremony awarding 18 people -- religious and laity -- diplomas for completing a specialization course in safeguarding minors.

Victims receive no information during the process and the accused are left "in limbo" for what may be five years or more not knowing if they will be sentenced or even found guilty, he said. Not even the bishop or religious superior of the accused receives information about what's happening, he added.

So while the church's definitions of what constitutes a crime and suggested sentences are clear, he said, what needs addressing is how to beef up the church's legal system so that it can "actually bring justice to everyone" and truly protect minors.

Reporters also asked Father Zollner about his thoughts concerning Pope Francis' decision to believe Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno, Chile, and not victims who claimed the bishop may have been aware of and even present during their abuse by the bishop's former mentor, Father Fernando Karadima. The priest was sentenced to a life of prayer and penance by the Vatican after he was found guilty of sexually abusing boys.

Father Zollner, who had been a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors since its inception in 2014, insisted the pope does listen, and he knows that personally from being an interpreter for two German abuse survivors who had separate and lengthy private meetings with the pope in 2014. The meetings had a hugely positive impact on the emotional and spiritual well-being of those two survivors, the German Jesuit said.

But when pressed about doubts over whether the pope listened to a Chilean survivor who had written a letter to the pope that was to be hand delivered by Cardinal Sean O'Malley, head of the papal commission, Father Zollner said he would have no way of knowing whether the pope read the letter.

Yet, he said that when he once handed the pope two letters, "I am quite certain he did not open these letters" based on the nature of the pope's response.

At the Feb. 9 ceremony, Father Zollner, a theologian and psychologist who is also dean of the university's institute of psychology, unveiled a new academic degree program in safeguarding that will begin in the fall. The licentiate or master's degree is meant for specialists from any field -- theology, canon law, civil law, psychology, social services -- to deepen their knowledge and practical skills in child protection.

Approved by the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, the degree also qualifies educators to teach in seminaries or other institutes where future generations of religious, priests and bishops are formed, he said.

The idea, Father Zollner said, is to equip people interested in the field of child protection with high-level, multidisciplinary qualifications, skills and drive to take safeguarding to a whole new level.

Accusations of sexual harassment unleashed by the #MeToo movement and the controversy over the pope's support of Bishop Barros are just two recent events that show how great a need there is for "greater understanding and a broader range of responsibility" in protecting human dignity, he said.

"In theory, we have all the instruments," guidelines and norms in place, but they only "help us up to a certain point," he told reporters.

Major problems include applying what the church mandates when it comes to: drawing up and carrying out abuse policies; properly vetting and forming candidates for the priesthood and religious life; and holding bishops and major superiors accountable when they fail to act or cover up abuse, he said.

Another problem is many church leaders do not even know what church law, much less their country's civil law, says about the crime of abuse and reporting requirements, he added.

Fundamentally, the lack of awareness and application of church law, comes down to a problem of "the heart" -- "how to shape mentalities" -- so people are thorough and determined in building awareness and carrying out the law.

"Unfortunately, we are not machines" that just can be programed differently, he said.

"There is a culture that must be changed, but this will not happen overnight," Father Zollner said. "I've always said it will be a very long journey."

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Jeffrey Dalton
1 year ago

Thank you for this article. The substantive issue is why the Church administration demands that it must resort to a separate and completely internal legal process. Findings of guilt in secular courts should be sufficient basis for a decision to laicise a cleric. The continuation of a separate 'legal' system here only furthers the dangerous trend of constantly making distinctions with secular institutions. Frankly, at least in common law countries, any findings of guilt would be the result of an open, fair and accountable judicial system.

Carol Stanton
1 year ago

"The idea, Father Zollner said, is to equip people interested in the field of child protection with high-level, multidisciplinary qualifications, skills and drive to take safeguarding to a whole new level."

While I applaud any effort to educate for child protection I want to say that in many Western countries at least church leadership has always had this level of expertise, mostly among the laity, available to it. The problem has been that those experts have not been used or heeded or worse yet, used and not heeded, by those in charge.

Until every Bishop and Vicar General and Chancellor and Diocesan lawyer and Diocesan H.R. director is required to take this Certification Course or something equivalent ( not a one day seminar!!) there is little hope that the entrenched culture will change--slowly or not.

We are talking about a culture that enables criminals when it comes to abuse of others.
For the sake of victims past, present and future, we do not have the luxury of moving at typical church pace.


The latest from america

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the president of the U.S.C.C.B., speaks on the removal of Theodore McCarrick from the priesthood: "For all those McCarrick abused, I pray this judgment will be one small step, among many, toward healing.”
Catholic News ServiceFebruary 16, 2019
Pope Francis has recognized the dismissal from the clerical state, also known as laicization, of Theodore McCarrick, 88, the former cardinal and emeritus archbishop of Washington.
Gerard O’ConnellFebruary 16, 2019
Fr. Eric Sundrup, S.J. sat down with John Anderson, Eloise Blondiau and Bill McGarvey to discuss the Oscars for a special edition of America This Week. Who do you think should win the Academy Award for Best Picture?
Ciaran FreemanFebruary 15, 2019
As we head into Oscars season, here are 10 of the best and most diverse films that did not get nominated for an Oscar but still merit watching.
Olga SeguraFebruary 15, 2019