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Abuse and cover-ups
must no longer be tolerated

· An interview with Jesuit Father Hans Zollner ·

“Both abuse and its cover-up can no longer be tolerated”. This firm conviction spurred Pope Francis to convoke a meeting on the protection of minors in the Church. Fr Hans Zollner, SJ, — whom the Holy Father has appointed spokesperson of the organizing committee for the meeting which will be held at the Vatican from 21-24 February 2019 — explained in an interview with Vatican News and L’Osservatore Romano that preparations for the meeting are now underway. Fr Zollner, who also serves as a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, emphasized in particular the “synodal dimension” of the meeting, in which the Pope will join representatives of the episcopate from around the world. The following is the English text of the interview.

What is the goal of the Committee?

Everything needs to be prepared. And in order to prepare everything well, there needs to be someone to shoulder the burden. The meeting in February is an important event; it’s very important for the Church. It is necessary that it be prepared well, and that it involve all of the Episcopal Conferences right away. Information, reflections, the spirit of prayer and penance and proposals for new concrete action need to be shared immediately. It is necessary that the awareness of a synodal journal be shared — cum Petro et sub Petro (with Peter and under Peter). We must do everything that we can, as the Holy Father said in his letter to the People of God “to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated”. Organizing the meeting well will help to put together the analysis, the awareness, the shame, the repentance, prayer, and discernment regarding actions to be undertaken and decisions to be made in justice and in truth.

Because of this, the consultations that we will have with victims, with groups of experts, with the laity, with educated men and women is also important. This work will be done together with the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, headed by Cardinal O’Malley, of which I am also a member.

Concretely, what will you do from now until the February meeting?

In concrete terms, the Committee will provide for the preparation of next February’s meeting in logistical terms as well as in terms of the content, according to the directives given by the Holy Father. In view of this, we will be sending a questionnaire to those who will be invited to participate. It is important that there be a sharing of experiences, of the difficulties as well as possible solutions to face this terrible scandal. It seems to us that, even by proceeding in this way, the synodal dimension which Pope Francis has called for so many times, will be expressed.

What structure will the February meeting take on?

The structure provides for the freest and most fruitful encounter possible. And at the same time, one that must be prayerful and reflective, of analysis and proposals. So that the meeting might be fruitful, as I have already said, we believe that it is very important that there be a consultation phase, which we will launch soon. The Holy Father has assured that he will be present at the work sessions at the meeting, which in some way will recall the synodal experience.

Will there be preparatory material?

Certainly one of the Committee’s tasks is that of preparing base documentation for the participants so that February’s meeting might be set within the journey accomplished so far.

Where does the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors fit in with respect to this new Committee?

There will be a close collaborative rapport. The fact that I, a member of the Pontifical Commission, was named to coordinate the activities of the organizing Committee, I think demonstrates precisely this and emphasizes, on the Holy Father’s part, the recognition of the work done up till now by the Pontifical Commission. In addition, the Committee will make use of the Commission in the consultative phase that I spoke of earlier, which will be fundamental in order to adequately prepare the meeting in February.

Some are saying that the expectations for the February meeting are too high. What do you think the Pope expects from this meeting?

We are aware that there are high expectations, and it is understandable that this is so, given the gravity of the scandal that has shocked and wounded so many people, believers and non-believers, in so many countries. As the Holy Father wrote in the letter to the People of God, “we feel shame when we realize that our style of life has denied, and continues to deny, the words we recite. With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives”.

The Holy See reiterated this clearly: “Both abuse and its cover-up can no longer be tolerated and a different treatment for Bishops who have committed or covered up abuse, in fact represents a form of clericalism that is no longer acceptable”.

And the Holy Father has convoked the meeting in February — an unprecedented decision — precisely because he is aware that the protection of minors is a fundamental priority for the Church, for its mission, and not only for its credibility. For this reason, he wants the encounter between the presidents of episcopal conferences and the other participants in the meeting be free, without conditions, animated by prayer and by a spirit of parresia (frankness, boldness) which he has particularly at heart.

Many episcopal conferences have met for their plenary assemblies in this period and have discussed anti-abuse measures. Will there be a place for this work at February’s meeting?

It will have a fundamental place. As I said, the consultative phase that has already begun and specifically serves to gather together and better harmonize the experiences of the Episcopal Conferences. If the Pope has convoked the presidents of the Episcopal Conferences, it is precisely to emphasize how much he believes in the value of the Apostolic communion among the bishop of Rome and his fell brothers in the episcopate. The Holy Father is convinced that the plague, the “sacrilege” as he has said numerous times, of abuse is a problem that does not pertain to a single country, and certainly not only to western countries. It involves every country. It does not regard the Church only, but many different sectors: schools, sports, the family. It requires a firm and universal response, within specific contexts and cultures. It places us as believers in front of the mystery of evil and the necessity to combat it to the end, without hesitation. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it”. Truly, the words of St Paul to the Corinthians, restated at the beginning of the letter to the People of God, make us understand the spirit that moved the Pope to convoke this meeting. We suffer together, and together, with the Lord’s help, we must find the cure: “the only way that we have to respond to this evil that has darkened so many lives is to experience it as a task regarding all of us as the People of God. This awareness of being part of a people and a shared history will enable us to acknowledge our past sins and mistakes with a penitential openness that can allow us to be renewed from within”.

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