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Creative responses to the abuse crisis

Michael McVeigh  |  11 November 2018

The President of the Centre for Child Protection at the Gregorian University in Rome, and a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Fr Hans Zollner SJ, was in Australia recently to speak to Catholic ministry leaders and survivors.

Australian Catholics editor Michael McVeigh sat down with him to explore how the Church is responding to the abuse crisis internationally, and what can be done to better engage with victims and survivors in Australia.

Michael: You’ve visited a number of countries around the world. We’ve obviously had the Royal Commission here in Australia, but what are some of the other ways that you’ve seen that the voices of victims are being supported around the world?

Hans: In France there is one diocese that has established what they call ‘The Listening Space’. There, victims can come forward and they can express themselves. The bishop is present. It’s an open space in which people who have been hurt tremendously are free at least to express what they want to ask from the Church leadership, etc.

There are other places in the US or in other countries where victims have been invited by dioceses, by Provinces, by the leadership of the Church, to come forward.

I have to say that overall I think there is a good will, and there are many people like bishops and provincials who listen to victims than we know. But there is no one model of giving victims not only the space to express themselves and be listened to, but also to engage actively in Church development.


Michael: What are some of the things you’ve seen that we could be considering here in Australia?

Hans: One of the major points that many victims bring up is, ‘Can’t we have – within parish settings, within schools settings – a regular conversation going on that includes survivors of abuse as regular members of a committee, a commission, a feedback group or something like that?’

That will help all of us. It will help survivors and victims because they will feel welcome and appreciated in the specific experience, and in the specific life challenges, that they went through. Secondly, it will help the community at large, because we can at least make ourselves more and more sensitive to what the concerns and specific needs of survivors are – that can also talk to the needs of young people.

I think we need to be creative. It will work for one school and one parish and one diocese in one way, and for others in a different way. Because the survivors with whom I am in constant contact, they have quite similar requests, and similar experiences in regard to being welcomed in the Church or not – feeling thrown out or dismissed. But they have also among themselves quite different expectations. So I have learned that you have also to be very forthcoming in accepting the differences in what this specific group, or this specific survivor, wants, requests and needs.


Michael: We’ve had the process of the Royal Commission here in Australia, which has provided an independent process where victims could come forward. Is there a need for something like that in terms of a truth, justice and reconciliation process for the Church internationally?

Hans: Yes, I think there is a need for that internationally. I think first every local church needs to do its own homework. I don’t see it happening very soon that there would be the establishment of some such council or commission that would look into this whole area for the whole Church. We talk about a Church whose membership amounts to 1.3 billion people, that is present in 190 countries, with all kinds of differences in expectations concerning psychological, spiritual and financial support.

There is one thing that I have come across consistently in communicating with, and working with and in listening to victims – that is they want to be listened to. So if there were the feeling and sense that victims were constantly listened to – in Rome and elsewhere – I think that would give a great relief to many victims.


Michael: There are a number of things that people blame for abuse in the Church. As a priest and a psychologist, and as someone who has met and worked with survivors, what are your thoughts on that issue?

Hans: I think the question of where does abuse come from is the most important one, and the Pope has addressed that in his letter to the people of God published on 20 August. The question of sexual abuse is always linked – or almost always linked – not only to the question of abuse of power, but also the abuse of conscience.

Many people think celibacy produces abuse. As I always say, celibacy as such is not cause for abusing. But, celibacy, or a vow of chastity, that is not really integrated, that is not really lived out properly – yes, that produces a problem. Sometimes people take to drinking, sometime they take to gambling, and sometimes they take to sexual misconduct, with adults and with minors.

The real question about this is how do we deal with the notion of religious spiritual power with which priests and bishops are invested? How can theology help us to understand, and maybe how can sociology, psychology, how can business administration help us to define the limits of power, and the necessity to keep your boundaries?


Topic tags: valuesandmoraldecision-making, vocationsandlifechoices, church-thepeopleofgod

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