Father Hans Zollner on the German sex abuse report, Pope Benedict and the future of the church
In a wide-ranging interview with America, Father Hans Zollner, the German Jesuit and one of the church’s top experts in the field of the safeguarding and protection of minors and vulnerable people from abuse, discussed the much-publicized report on how abuse cases were handled in the archdiocese of Munich and Freising, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s response to that report, the situation of the Catholic Church in Germany today, and what more Rome could do to help eliminate this plague from the church.
Father Zollner is the founding president of the Pontifical Gregorian University’s Center for Child Protection, which has now become the university’s Safeguarding Institute (IADC). He has been one of the few people in Rome willing to speak on the record about the Munich report, Benedict XVI and the church in Germany. I spoke with him in the institute’s office, at the Collegio Bellarmino, on Jan. 28.
Father Zollner has been one of the few people in Rome willing to speak on the record about the Munich report.
The Munich Report
The investigation on how clerical abuse of minors was handled by those who led the archdiocese of Munich and Freising between 1945 and 2019 was commissioned by that diocese in February 2020. It was conducted by the Westpfahl Spilker Wastl law firm, and the report was presented at a press conference in Munich on Jan. 20. The findings revealed that at least 497 people were abused in the archdiocese in that 74-year period. It showed that most of the victims were young, 247 were male and 182 female, and 60 percent were between the ages of 8 and 14. It identified 235 perpetrators of abuse including 173 priests, nine deacons, five pastoral workers, and 48 people from the school environment. It named the archbishops and church leaders whom it found to have mishandled the cases of abuse, including Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI.
I began by asking Father Zollner if he thinks the greatest damage to the church came from the fact that Benedict was identified as one who mishandled abuse cases. His answer was striking: “While most attention has been drawn to this, the biggest damage to the church, the most shocking fact, is that none—not a single one, conservative or liberal—of the archbishops of the Munich-Freising archdiocese from 1945 to 2019 has done consistently what he should have done in dealing with cases of abuse.” On the other hand, “they were more consistent with lay people than with priests: when a lay person was accused, they removed him from service in the church, but not the priest.”
I noted that from the beginning of the abuse scandal putting the institution before the victim has been identified as one of the major problems. While Father Zollner agreed, he added: “It was a case of the inner circle, the in-house club,:‘We solve the problem among ourselves.’” Instead, he said, “dealing with the abuse problem calls for a sharing of power, for inclusion of experts, for independent audits. We have the latter in some parts of the world today, but we need it also for personnel strategy, for communication and so on. This is a call for the church to open up and not to remain in a fortress mentality.”
When I remarked that the synodal process started by Pope Francis aims to achieve this, Father Zollner said, “Yes, it combines well.” But, he added, the core challenge “is the relationship between the church and the world,” an issue that “Vatican II began to address, but we didn’t follow through on this, and so a 19th century defensive mentality still prevails, as Cardinal Martini noted when he said the church was 200 years behind the times.”
From his experience over the years Father Zollner said he has come to understand that “in the abuse and its cover-up you see life in ‘brennpunkt’ [the German word means ‘focus’]; you see the big questions concentrated there—sex, money, power, leadership, relationships, relationship to the state, to outside experts and to the media, and therefore our work in our Safeguarding Institute is not only about sex abuse, it is also about structure, systemic [abuse], accountability, transparency, and much else.” In other words, “the abuse and all its mishandling could be considered as a microcosm of the challenges facing the church today.”
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI
Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI, was archbishop of Munich and Freising from 1977 to 1982, and the lawyers investigating the archdiocese found him negligent in four cases. As with other persons whom it claimed had likewise failed, they sent him a series of questions relating to those four cases requesting his response.
The law firm sent the questions to Benedict XVI accompanied by the relevant documentation. KNA, a German Catholic news agency, has reported that Archbishop Georg Gänswein, private secretary to Benedict, enlisted the assistance of a German priest and canon lawyer, Stefan Mückl, professor at the Opus Dei-run Santa Croce University in Rome, along with a German layman lawyer, Carsten Brennecke, from the Cologne law firm that is defending Cardinal Rainer Woelki regarding his problems regarding governance in the diocese. Asked to examine the questions in the light of the background documentation, the lawyers at first advised against responding, but subsequently decided to work on preparing that response. Father Zollner believes “It was good, in principle, that Benedict showed a willingness to cooperate. It showed he took it seriously.”
Benedict XVI “is lucid” and “has a very good long-term memory,” as people who visited him over Christmas told Father Zollner, and he put his signature to the 82 pages of responses that were sent to the law firm around Dec. 15 or 16, thereby taking responsibility for them. The Vatican was not involved in preparing or approving the responses, and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the secretary of state, was only informed about it around Christmas Day.
Father Zollner, like many others, concluded that Benedict’s advisors had not served him well.
After reading both the questions and the emeritus pope’s responses, Father Zollner, like many others, concluded that Benedict’s advisors had not served him well. He identified various problems with the 82-page response, besides the fact that it is obvious that the response was not written by Benedict. This was immediately evident, as it was written in a different style of German than Benedict ordinarily uses.
Father Zollner said the first problem relates to the fact that Benedict in his response said that as archbishop of Munich (1977-82) he was influenced by “the zeitgeist” of that time—whereas hitherto he had always insisted that as Christians we should not be influenced by the zeitgeist because we have moral values and standards that are independent of it. Furthermore, in an April 2019 article, Pope Benedict accused the zeitgeist of the 1960s for the abuse scandals in the church.
A second problem relates to the approach the response took to moral and canonical questions, Father Zollner said. The response, signed by Benedict, states that masturbation in front of girls that does not involve touching is not sexual abuse. Father Zollner said that while some canon lawyers argue that defining sexual abuse as offenses against the sixth commandment avoids reducing it to a narrow legal definition and gives the opportunity to apply it more appropriately to the concrete situation, in this case this point is used to deliberately avoid saying that it is a sexual offense.
A third problem is that Benedict’s response says the bishop is not responsible for a priest who abuses “in private,” meaning when he is not wearing clerical attire and cannot be recognized as a priest. Father Zollner asked whether this means that priesthood is related to clerical attire. Moreover, this response reveals an “inconsistency” with Benedict’s own theology and indeed with the theology of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Because of this, Father Zollner said, “It is certainly not from him, even though he signed it.”
Benedict should simply and humbly say something like, “I may have made mistakes, I ask forgiveness for this, I ask pardon of the victims.”
Pointing to a fourth problem, Father Zollner said he found it “astounding” that although Archbishop Gänswein and the lawyers assisting Benedict had received the relevant background documentation, including the minutes of the Jan. 15, 1980 meeting that showed that Cardinal Ratzinger had participated in the gathering where they discussed the Essen diocese’s request to allow an abuser, Father Peter, Hullerman to come to Munich for psychotherapy. Nevertheless Benedict, in his response, “stated on three different occasions that he was not present.” After the publication of the report, however, Benedict “had to backtrack and admit he was present” but attributed the mistake to “an error in editing.”
Asked what he expects to happen next as regards Benedict since, according to Archbishop Gänswein, Benedict is reading the report carefully and preparing a response, Father Zollner repeated what he is on record as having said earlier: He thinks Benedict should simply and humbly say something like, “I may have made mistakes, I ask forgiveness for this, I ask pardon of the victims.” He believes that, at this stage, the attempt to discuss details will be seen as an attempt at self-justification. He noted moreover that some bishops have stated publicly that Benedict should simply acknowledge his mistakes and ask forgiveness.
The Church in Germany
When I asked Father Zollner about what he sees happening in the German church given the impact from the abuse scandal, he said “there is a major exit from the pews” and this, combined with the pandemic, has resulted in the fact that many no longer go to church and won’t come back. Since the number of people declaring themselves members of the Catholic Church in Germany “has been decreasing,” Father Zollner predicted this will impact negatively on the church’s finances, and it will have broader implications because the German Catholic Church is one of the top three donors to the Vatican and to mission churches.
Moreover, he said, as a result of the impression of lack of leadership in the local church, the laity feel they need to make their own efforts at repentance and conversion: For example, he said that in at least one parish in northern Bavaria “they have canceled the Mass for three consecutive Sundays in solidarity with the victims.”
Investigations of a similar kind to Munich are currently being carried out in other German dioceses as a follow up to the 2018 report, he said, and more disturbing news in the media can be expected. He predicted however that the data in future reports—the next ones are expected from Freiburg and Münster—is unlikely to be much different from what we have already seen: in other words, allegations of abuse against three to five percent of diocesan Catholic priests, with the majority in the 1960s and 1970s. Most abusers were between 35 and 50 years old, while most victims were male children or adolescents, especially in the earlier decades between 1945 and 2020. “You have no alternative to transparency over the numbers of abuse, it will come out sooner or later, so you should not try to deny it,” he said.
“You have no alternative to transparency over the numbers of abuse, it will come out sooner or later, so you should not try to deny it.”
I noted that in Chile seven bishops had their resignations accepted by the pope since the abuse scandal erupted there in 2018, and in Poland ten bishops have been asked to resign as a result of the abuse scandal there, but to date no German bishops have resigned.
I recalled that when the abuse scandal exploded in Boston in 2002 and many were calling for Cardinal Bernard Law’s resignation, I asked the American Cardinal James Stafford, then working in the Vatican, if he thought the Boston cardinal should resign. He responded that if a bishop has lost the trust of his priests and people, then he should resign. Father Zollner said he agreed with this criterion but added, “Someone should have the power to tell him to resign if he does not realize it himself.”
In a Jan. 26 interview with a German Catholic news outlet, Father Zollner said, “in the church, there is a tendency for many to present themselves only as a small wheel. This can also be seen in bishops who say I would like to resign, but the pope does not let me. Instead, they should be man enough and say, no matter what the pope says now, I can’t do more, and I don’t want more.” In the interview with America he said, “If I [the bishop] am discredited, the pope can say what he wants, but if my conscience tells me it’s impossible to continue then I should say so and go.”
But Father Zollner said, “I don’t think the resignations in themselves will change the situation. Just having resignations for resignations’ sake—no! But as I have said there are some who have lost credibility with the people of God, and I don’t think this can be mended.”
Along the same track, he recalled that after the publication of the report, Cardinal Marx, the current archbishop of Munich and Freising, did not exclude the possibility that he would step down – even after his request to do so was rejected by Pope Francis last summer. “It’s an open question, especially after what he has promised” in response to the Munich report, he said. “In any case, at the latest in a year’s time he will report back, as he himself said, and he will be held accountable for what he will have done or not done. We could even think that once he has completed his task he could say, ‘I’ve done my part and now I’ll be the parish priest in Upper Bavaria.’”
The Way Ahead
Father Zollner believes that a crucially important way ahead for the church in Germany and elsewhere is to forcefully implement the changes in church law introduced by Pope Francis and his predecessors, and especially the 2019 motu proprio “Vos Estis Lux Mundi” (VELM “You Are the Light of the World”). He believes that if VELM is fully implemented by bishops and religious superiors throughout the church, this would change the way allegations of abuse are managed, protect complainants, enforce accountability, eliminate cover-up, and help bring justice to victims.
He also thinks “that local churches should take more responsibility in this field and others.” He thinks “bishops and bishops’ conferences should take much more responsibility to organize church life in their own country and decide, for example, the roles that should be given to women in the life of the church.”