Abuse expert: Crisis is call to new vision of priesthood, accountability

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — A Jesuit priest who has been on the
frontline of advocating for survivors of clerical sexual abuse and developing detailed programs to prevent abuse said the crisis unfolding, again,
in the United States is a summons to a new way of envisioning the church and
taking responsibility for it.

“I am not surprised” by the new reports of abuse,
“I do not think it will stop soon and, at the same time, I think it is
necessary and should be seen in the framework of evolving a more consistent
practice of accountability,” said Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, a professor
of psychology and president of the Center for Child Protection at the
Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

“I know that people are deeply angry and they are
losing their trust — this is understandable. That is normal, humanly speaking,”
he told Catholic News Service Aug. 7 as newspapers were filled with information
and commentary about the case of retired Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick, misconduct in a Nebraska seminary and the pending release of a
Pennsylvania grand jury report on clergy sexual abuse.

The courage of survivors to speak out, the investigative
work of both police and church bodies, the implementation of child protection
measures and improved screening of potential seminarians, church workers and
volunteers mean that children and vulnerable adults are safer today.

But, as Father Zollner has been saying for years, that does
not mean accusations of past abuse will stop coming out, and it does not guarantee
there will never again be a case of abuse or sexual misconduct.

Dealing with the reality of potential abuse and the history
of clerical sexual abuse in the church is a process, he said. “We see that
people were first speaking out about the misbehavior of priests and now it’s
bishops, so there is a development there. I am not surprised, and I do not
think it will stop soon.”

After Archbishop McCarrick resigned from the College of
Cardinals and was ordered to live a life of prayer and penance pending a church
trial, many U.S. bishops began speaking publicly of devising a process to
review accusations made against bishops.

Father Zollner agreed that is a good idea, but he believes
it must be part of “a new way of coming together as the people of God”
and taking responsibility for the church.

To make that happen, he said, “we need to honestly look
at what we can learn from the way society and companies function in terms of
accountability, transparency and compliance.”

“A church body investigating allegations needs to have
as much independence as possible,” Father Zollner said. “When dealing
with accusations against a bishop, there should be at least a mixed board —
meaning some bishops and some independent lay persons. If it is not possible to
have a fully complete investigation by independent lay persons, there should be
as many as possible and as experienced as possible. Our canon lawyers are
trained in legal procedures; they are not trained in investigation.”

But the response must go far beyond setting up another new
structure, he said.

“Since God is the Lord of history, I understand all
this as a call to a deeper understanding of what is the church about, what is
priesthood about and what is the Christian life,” he told CNS.

“From my point of view, the temptation can be to return
to a very strict, closed-fortress idea of church, controlling everything,”
he said, but “that will not work anymore. We need a new model of
accountability and responsibility and a new way of educating the whole people
of God in Christian ideals.”

The dominant understanding of priesthood and power —
described as clericalism — is one key ingredient and was highlighted as a
major contributing factor to abuse and a reluctance to report it in the December
report of Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child
Sexual Abuse.

In an essay published in January by Civilta Cattolica, the
Jesuit journal, Father Zollner said, “Whoever in infancy or youth or as a
candidate for priesthood learned that a priest is always blameless can easily
develop the mindset that he does not need to justify himself to anyone. Anyone
endowed with sacred powers can take anything he wants for himself. That kind of
mentality can explain, at least in part, why some priests who have abused children
or young people deny doing so or believe that they themselves were victims or
merely accomplices (‘he seduced me,’ ‘he liked it’), often making them blind to
the suffering they have caused.”

In addition to a renewed understanding of priesthood, Father
Zollner told CNS, Catholics must reflect more fully on and articulate more
clearly “what an integrated sexual life for married people, single people
and clergy would look like. There is a lot to be done in that area.”

Responding to comments that the clerical sexual abuse crisis
is a result of the sexual revolution and the loss of sexual morals, Father
Zollner urged caution and an objective study of the facts.

“The statistics from the Royal Commission report in
Australia indicate that the abuse had its peak in Australia in the ’50s and
early ’60s, which was way before the sexual revolution took place, so this goes
against that argument,” he said. Studies from the United States, Ireland
and Germany also show that most abusers did their seminary training and were
ordained before the sexual revolution.

“Among the clergy, the number of new allegations from
the last 20 and especially the last 10 years has dropped almost to nil,”
he said.

At the same time, Father Zollner urged a renewed vigilance
because of “the whole area of the internet and the availability of
pornographic material and all kinds of sexual exploitation that are facilitated
by that; it brings a new dimension to this and to society at large.”

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Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden.

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