29 March 2023, The Tablet

Fr Hans Zollner resigns from child protection body

The issues raised by Fr Zollner appear to centre on Fr Andrew Small’s leadership of the the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

Fr Hans Zollner resigns from child protection body

Fr Hans Zollner, representing the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors at a conference last year.
Reinaldo Rodrigues/Global Images/Sipa USA

One of the Church’s leading anti-abuse experts has stepped down from the Holy See’s child protection commission, saying he had become “increasingly concerned” with how the body is being run. 

Fr Hans Zollner SJ, a trained psychologist and psychotherapist, has for years taken a leading international role in tackling clerical sexual abuse and was chosen by Pope Francis to be among the first members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

The commission was established in 2014 to advise the Pope on safeguarding and pastoral support to survivors. 

But the German Jesuit said that shortcomings in “responsibility, compliance, accountability and transparency” in the running of the commission meant he wished to “disassociate” from the body.

In a statement on 29 March, he cited “structural and practical issues” at the commission, including “the lack of clarity” on the appointment of staff and members and their roles, inadequate “financial accountability” and a lack of transparency in how decisions are made including “insufficient information and vague communications” being provided to commission members. 

Fr Zollner is not the only former commission member who has criticised how the body has run.

Last year, The Tablet reported how several former members had raised questions about the decision to place it under the auspices of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, the wisdom of entering a financial partnership with the Italian bishops’ conference to help fund abuse reporting centres in the global south and cited a style of working which was not collaborative.

The commission secretariat has modest resources and a small staff. It is led by Fr Andrew Small, who was appointed its temporary secretary in June 2021. Before becoming secretary of the child protection body, he worked as national director of the Pontifical Mission Societies.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the Archbishop of Boston, is president of the body: he is a respected figure with a track record of tackling abuse cases and accompanying victims and survivors. 

In his statement, Cardinal O’Malley said Fr Zollner had asked the Pope “to be relieved of his duties as a member” due to his other responsibilities, including a recent appointment as a safeguarding consultant to the Diocese of Rome. The Jesuit priest also leads the Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care, part of the Pontifical Gregorian University.

The cardinal praised Fr Zollner’s work as an “ambassador for safeguarding” who has trained bishops and religious leaders worldwide. 

Many of the issues raised by Fr Zollner and others appear to centre around Fr Small’s leadership of the commission. The interim secretary was closely involved in overhauling the commission’s membership last September.

Sr Jane Bertelsen, the Congregational Leader of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood, has said that “a collaborative, synodal style of working…was not evident in my last few months on the commission”, while Baroness Sheila Hollins, an expert in child psychiatry and psychotherapy and a former President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, has also gone public with her concerns. Responding to Fr Zollner's resignation, she told The Tablet: "Fr Hans is a man of integrity and tells it how it is."

Lady Hollins cited Sr Bertelsen’s comments during the Catholic Union’s Craigmyle Lecture on 28 November 2022 and described some of the commission’s plans as “unrealistic.” She added that it was “anomalous to put a safeguarding commission into the department that deals with allegations against priests given that its brief is to prevent abuse and to address the care and healing of victims/survivors.”

She insisted that “listening to victim survivors matters more than anything” when it comes to tackling abuse and improving safeguarding. She praised Francis’ leadership when it came to tackling sexual abuse

Marie Collins, an abuse survivor and another former commission member, stressed that abuse must be tackled as a cultural and systemic problem, not simply as a disciplinary matter.

“It is a cultural and systemic problem within the Church and needs to be addressed as such. If you are putting the commission in with the disciplinary section of the Curia [the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith], then what about the preventative side?”

Mrs Collins resigned in 2017 from the commission because of what she called “resistance” to its work from the doctrine office, while it is still unclear how the commission and the dicastery will work together.

In his statement, Fr Zollner said he was “unaware of any regulations that govern the relationship between the commission and the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith”.

During his time working in church safeguarding Fr Zollner played a key role in the 2019 Vatican summit on abuse, which resulted in the Pope issuing a landmark series of safeguarding norms, Vos Estis Lux Mundirecently updated and made permanent by Francis

UPDATE: Following Fr Zollner's statement, Cardinal O'Malley said he was "surprised, disappointed and strongly disagree with his publicly-issued assertions challenging the Commission’s effectiveness." He added: "we do both share the view that the protection of children and vulnerable persons remains at the heart of the Church’s mission and the Commission will continue to manifest that conviction."

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