There is an accessible version of this website. You can click here to switch now or switch to it at any time by clicking Accessibility in the footer.

EXCLUSIVE: Vatican expert gives insight into abuse crises


Dr Hans Zollner is a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, consultor to the Congregation for the Clergy, President of the Centre for Child Protection and Vice Rector of Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Photo: Eric Martin

By Eric Martin

The Church’s response as a body to the global child abuse crisis was the topic of a presentation by Rev Dr Hans Zollner SJ, a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, consultor to the Congregation for the Clergy, President of the Centre for Child Protection and Vice Rector of Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

The presentation, entitled Best Practise or next practice, Global developments in Safeguarding, was delivered to staff of the Archdiocese of Perth at the Newman Sienna Centre, Doubleview, on Monday 24 June.

The German Jesuit priest, theologian and psychologist was in Perth this week to deliver a series of talks about the changing nature of the abuse crisis, and to stress that the Church in Australia should not be alarmed by the seemingly slow response of the Vatican in addressing the many questions and socio-political fallout.

“We are in a different situation compared to 2017,” Dr Zollner said.

“My experience is that in 2018, something dramatic happened and we came from talking about abuse committed by one priest, dealing with one survivor victim, having to confront one bishop or provincial that covered up, even talking about one bishops’ conference or one religious congregation or order that has to face this situation, to, the Catholic Church as a whole, as a system, as an institution.

“This is the major difference to not even two years ago, not even a year and a half ago,” Dr Zollner explained.


Dr Zollner elaborates on the temporal patterns of offending as indicated by the data collected during his research. Photo: Eric Martin.

Speaking about the Royal Commission, Dr Zollner identified that the final report detailed not only the incidences of abuse by priests, but also the cover up by Bishops and senior clergy.

“Hence, it is the Church system that is presented as in part dysfunctional.

“This shows that the Church as an institution is in question, by the state and by the People of God.

“And this is something new at least when it comes to the general feeling and the general discussion.

“And that sticks with us and this is why I believe that is necessary that we talk about it - It is somehow impinging or impacting all of us, in whatever position we are.

“As Catholics, in whatever role, however old you are, whatever you think about the Church, this is a reality that we have to deal with.”

Dr Zollner went on to say that Australians need to remember that the response in a first world country such as ours, takes place within the context of an active media, an historically western civil and legal system with its associated separation of church and state, a system that enshrines protection for religious and political ideologies and one where the citizens have great confidence in the integrity of their government.

This is not the case, he explained, in the majority of the world and the Catholic Church’s response needs to be developed with all of these separate influencing factors being addressed in a way that is both meaningful and culturally sensitive to all parties involved, no matter their nationality.

“If you look into the Church worldwide, I would say that the topic is, by now, everywhere,” Dr Zollner said.

“It may come as a surprise to you that I state that, as in your country, it has been a public issue for about 30 years now, but this is not the case in about 80 percent of countries in the world.

“Everybody who follows news is now aware of it and many people are overwhelmed, or paralysed – but you don’t find much active resistance.

“The typical reactions that you would get around the globe is: I feel for the church; if only I was not so helpless; how did members of my faith community abuse children and how was I fooled by them; the damage done by so few hurts us all; it’s terrible for the kids and; I can’t take it anymore.

“This is pretty much the same, what you hear and what you listen to in different parts of the world.”


Dr Zollner presents to a full audience from the Archdiocese of Perth at the Newman Siena Centre, Woodlands, on Monday 24 June.

Yet the responses, noted Dr Zollner, that this topic elicits from the Body of Christ in different countries still reflects the reality of historically divergent socio-political systems and their effect on the ‘norms, values and attitudes’ of a particular population.

“For example, a bishop in one of the former communist countries of Europe told me some months ago, that he would never hand over a priest to authorities, to police – he could not do that,” Dr Zollner shared.

“Even if he had committed the crime of sexual abuse of a minor, he just couldn’t do it.

“Then he told me why: because he himself had been imprisoned during communism and what the state and the legal system and the police was all about, plus media and psychology, was about punishing the Church and trying to fight it, suppress it.

“And that is, humanly speaking, understandable – that a person who has gone through that for 50 years or so, who has grown up with that sentiment, doesn’t trust police, doesn’t trust the government who he thinks is still infiltrated by communist enemies of the Church. Yet, of course, he needs to change and to cooperate with civil authorities, as the Holy See expects him to do.

“This is one little example of the role that cultural and historical factors can play when we talk about this issue.”

He went onto elaborate that there is a fundamental disconnect between what the official Church, the bishops, the provincials, the institutions do – and what the people of God expect them, not only to do, but to communicate and to be.

“I think that what is lacking is the communication from the heart to the heart,” Dr Zollner said.

“The feeling that this is something that really disturbs us, upsets us, shames us, appals us and makes us more humble.

“Because we haven’t learned the lesson, we need to continue to learn it – we don’t have it and we won’t have it, because this is something that challenges us in a continuous way.”

Dr Zollner highlighted that when we talk about the ‘system’ we need to realise that systemic change is very difficult to achieve and will be a gradual, organic process that reflects the many realities in which the Catholic Church operates.

“The Catholic Church is, arguably, not only the oldest but also the biggest system in the world – and that’s why it’s difficult to change such a system,” Dr Zollner explained.

“It’s not about a systematic way to go forward – systemic change is much more complicated, because you realise that we are all interconnected and influence each other, and that there is not a part in society or in Church that could be independent from each other.”