Fight against poverty, encouraging migration and climate change concerns come ahead of protecting children during Francis pontificate.

Jesuit psychologist, who resigned in disgust from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, on abuse in the church

We cannot sit this out

Hans Zollner is a priest and professor of psychology. In the Vatican, he fights for the processing of abuse. A conversation about reforms and the role of the Pope.

wochentaz: Father Zollner, how do you prevent abuse?

Hans Zollner: That depends above all on how people understand themselves, how they know their own needs. How they deal with that and whether they interact with the people they live and work with in a way that respects the dignity and boundaries of others. There are risk and protective factors. Both in terms of the personal and the institutional.



is a priest and professor of psychology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. In 2012, he co-founded the Centre for Child Protection in Munich. Zollner advises religious congregations and dioceses worldwide on abuse prevention. There have been reports of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church for decades. In 2014, Pope Francis appointed an investigation commission. Hans Zollner left it in protest

The Catholic Church is considered a risky institution. You see from your office the headquarters, the Vatican.

I can see St Peter's Basilica from my desk opposite.

You are also very close to the Pope in other ways.

You can't say that. I didn't see him at all during the pandemic. Then two or three times in November and January. But I don't have a regular appointment with him.

In this country, many people wonder why the Pope leaves bishops like Rainer Maria Woelki, Reinhard Marx and Stefan Heße in office, even though they failed in dealing with abuse cases.

I don't know either. And wonder, not only about these three, but also about others who are less known in the German-speaking world. Of course, one must bear in mind that in the case of the three, the level of legal accusations is very different. Above all, it is not clear what criteria are applied as to why someone is dismissed in one case and not in another. What needs to be addressed, however, is moral responsibility, which is of course independent of statutes of limitations.

The most recent expert opinion from the Diocese of Freiburg attests that ex-bishop Robert Zollitsch, who was also chairman of the German Bishops' Conference, was guilty of a "full-blown cover-up". Again, those affected are demanding that politicians act. What must happen?

In terms of Federal policy, the position of the Independent Commissioner of the Federal Government against Sexual Abuse must be made permanent and strengthened. In 2020, I already campaigned in Berlin for a truth and reappraisal commission. I believe that the federal level would have to define what the criteria are for dealing with abuse and what the participation of those affected would look like.

And at the state level?

There is a need for contact points for those affected. Like the one that has now been created in Saarland and is being discussed in Bavaria. It is urgently necessary to introduce a compulsory subject on child protection for all training and study programmes that deal with work with children and young people. To date, this is not the case either in teacher training or in psychology, medicine or social work. I find this unbelievable.

You teach child protection. As a Jesuit priest at a papal university. Can you teach frogs to dry up the pond?

I would like to hope that people can differentiate, that they don't lump all priests and religious together. In prevention work, not in coming to terms with it, the Catholic Church, also in Germany, has done a lot. Enforcedly. In the area of prevention, one can say that sometimes even government agencies and NGOs approach us and ask for advice.

So is the Catholic Church being treated unfairly?

The Catholic Church is not treated unfairly. It has embodied and put before itself a higher moral standard. It is rightfully judged by that. And if the fall is higher, then of course the attention is also higher. But all experts say that the largest share of sexual violence happens in the family context. This is almost completely lost in the public debate. Online abuse is also only very sporadically in the spotlight. And that, in my opinion, is the biggest risk factor for children and young people today. What we have also noticed more and more in the last one or two years is abuse in sports clubs, also in other types of clubs.

The Independent Commissioner for Child Sexual Abuse, Kerstin Claus, says that not enough has been done in the Protestant Church either.

I don't want to come across as someone who points the finger at others. But the Protestants are not only a little behind, but almost 15 years behind. They liked to hide behind the Catholics and are now setting up high hurdles because soon they will also have to deal with the issue of coming to terms with it and paying compensation to victims in their ranks.

In March, you left the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which you co-founded nine years ago. Why?

I saw that the Commission itself was not applying the principles that the Church had officially given itself: Accountability, Responsibility and Transparency. After my attempts to communicate these concerns to the leadership went unheard, I had to draw the consequence.

What was the specific issue?

About the new appointments to the Commission, which had been in progress for the past year. Of the four people on the selection panel, one is now a member of the Commission himself and two are employed by the Commission. That contradicts my understanding of compliance. It was also about the lack of clarity about where the money comes from for the Commission, how it is managed and how it is audited. If there is this gap between what is communicated and what is done, then I can no longer participate. Because that is exactly a root cause of possible abuse.

Who is responsible? The President of the Commission, Cardinal Seán O'Malley, or also the Pope?

First of all, I see the President of the Commission and the Secretary of the Commission, Andrew Small, as responsible. If that doesn't work, then the Pope must intervene.

O 'Malley has expressed "surprise and disappointment" at your criticism, but recently spoke himself of "growing pains" and announced changes.

Suddenly all sorts of documents were put on the Commission's website about agreements with other ministries here in the Vatican. But if you read through them, I have the impression that everything is vague and not very comprehensible. We are left with declarations of intent, where we don't know what the actual goal is and who is supposed to check that it is being adhered to. And the big question, which has not been addressed at all: who is going to monitor the finances? It cannot be that a Commission monitors itself.

The President of the Commission is also the Archbishop of Boston. Are these offices compatible at all?

They would be compatible if the President were often in Rome, if he had the time or took the time to stay on top of things. And if he were willing to step into the ring. Because, of course, it is a field that also finds resistance here in the Vatican, as it does everywhere. Since the Vatican's constitutional reform last year, the Commission has been under the authority of the Dicastery of the Faith.

So the Commission is now part of a Vatican ministry. You fear that it will go under there.

I am convinced that this does not go well together. But now that it is, you need someone who also goes strongly into conflicts. And Cardinal O'Malley is not doing that.

Pope Francis has been in office for 10 years. What is your balance sheet as far as coming to terms with and preventing abuse is concerned?

When it comes to empathy, cordiality and closeness to people who are suffering, he is really quite credible. I have experienced that myself, and he showed it again a few days ago when victims of abuse from Munich were here. He is someone who has kept the issue alive, who has introduced more tightening in the legal area than all his predecessors put together. But it must also be said: unfortunately, he has not made it the number one priority of his Pontificate. For him, the fight against poverty, migration and ecology are at the top of the list. Abuse plays an important role, but just not the most important. Which I very much regret, because I believe that this will be an issue that the universal Church will be dealing with for many years and decades to come.