Head of the Dutch bishops meets the Pope – some speculations about how the Church fights abuse

Although no details have emerged about yesterday’s private audience of Bishop Hans van den Hende and Dr. Wim Deetman with Pope Francis, the mere names of the participants make it virtually impossible to not conclude that the abuse crisis must have been at the heart of the encounter.

DSC_2699_31481e79b67ab70c5ca711c62299f166Bishop van den Hende (at right) is the bishop of Rotterdam and the president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference and, as such, will take part in February’s meeting in Rome with all the heads of the world’s bishops’ conference to discuss the abuse crisis and formulate a unified response. Dr. Deetman, former education minister and mayor of The Hague, headed the investigation into historical sexual abuse within the Catholic Church on behalf of the bishops and the Conference of Dutch Religious.

A recent study by the Dutch Broadcast Foundation (NOS) reveals that, in the seen years since the publication of the Deetman Commission’s conclusions, there have been 103 background checks on priests who were under consideration of being transferred or appointed in one of the Dutch dioceses. In one case a bishop blocked such a transfer or appointment because of past abuse claims against the priest involved. Similarly, a further 46 claims of “unacceptable behaviour” have been made since 2015, eight of which involved sexually unacceptable behaviour committed after the publication of the Deetman report. These all involved adults, not minors, and three of the claims are still under investigation. Two of the claims involve an unnamed religious movement which does not fall under the authority of a bishop and is also not a member of the Conference of Dutch Religious. An unidentified auxiliary bishop has informed the Vatican and the police about the movement and the claims against them, as well as his own bishop, who is keeping an eye on the developing situation.

Also interesting in light of the private audience is a letter sent to the participants in the meeting on “The Protection of Minors in the Church”, scheduled to take place from 21 to 24 February. The letter, issued by the organising committee consisting of Cardinals Cupich and Gracias, Archbishop Scicluna and Father Zollner, emphasised that “Absent a comprehensive and communal response, not only will we fail to bring healing to victim survivors, but the very credibility of the Church to carry on the mission of Christ will be in jeopardy throughout the world.” The authors urge the Conference presidents to reach out to and meet with victims before the meeting, something which the Dutch bishops, as well as bishops from other countries, have been doing over the last few years. In other countries, however, this is something new.* The letter concludes: “[E]ach of us needs to own this challenge, coming together in solidarity, humility, and penitence to repair the damage done, sharing a common commitment to transparency, and holding everyone in the Church accountable.”

As said, it will probably remain unknown what Bishop van den Hende and Dr. Deetman discussed with the Pope, unless one of them chooses to reveal something, but if the abuse crisis was discussed, perhaps the actions of the Dutch bishops, which can be an example of correct policies, not just for the Church, but for society as a whole, will influence the preparations of the February meeting in a constructive and positive way.

* A recent development from the Archdiocese of Cologne comes to mind, where a priest from Cameroon had been working among the French-speaking faithful. This despite the fact that he had been laicised in his home diocese. However, for his work abroad, his bishop is said to have issued letters confirming his good standing… The exact details remain unclear. The laicisation is aid to have taken place in 2013, and there is talk of an emeritus bishop of the Archdiocese of Bertoua having provided credentials to the former priest. The only living emeritus archbishop of that see is Belgian-born Roger Pirenne, who retired in 2009. Why credentials were seemingly issued by a retired bishop, instead of current Archbishop Joseph Atanga, remains unclear. It is clear, however, that the abuse issues is not yet being taken seriously in all parts of the world. Let’s hope that the February meeting can do something to change that.

Photo credit: KN/Jan Peeters

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Fighting the resistance – Fr. Zollner on the struggle of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors

In an interview published by Katholisch.de today, Father Hans Zollner SJ sheds his light on the resistance from certain persons in the Roman Curia against measures to fight sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy or other representatives of the Church. Fr. Zollner is a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, most recently in the news because of the departure of Ms. Marie Collins, herself a survivor of abuse. She named the aforementioned resistance against the commission’s work as the main reason for leaving. Fr. Zollner explains:

ZollnerHans-SIR“Of course there is resistance, but not specifically against the representatives of victims or the Commission. The entire topic of abuse is deeply terrible and frightening. Dealing with it and facing it requires a lot of courage. And I believe that many clerics, but also non-clerics, find this very difficult. This is not limited to the Curia. Last Monday – three years after the establishment of the Commission – I was able to speak for the first time about this topic to the Italian bishops in Bologna. It was the same in Ecuador and Colombia a few weeks ago, and next week it will be the same in Malawi. We must conclude that the topic of abuse has not yet registered worldwide. Not in the Church, but also not in society. But it can no longer be ignored now. That is also a merit of the Commission: it has made it public across the world. The question remains if those responsible in the Church will actively pursue the topic out of self-motivation, or only when scandals become public.”

While, according to Fr. Zollner, the resistance that exists is not based on anything exlusive to the Church, but rather the human hesitation of dealing with something painful, there are specific problems in the Church that must be dealt with before the scourge of sexual abuse can be efficiently fought.

“On the one hand, people criticise Rome – in part rightly so -, which does not handle the topic of child abuse coherently. On the other hand bishops’ conferences continue to refuse to implement instructions from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from the year 2011. Of course, one can wonder who no take them to task about this. Very simply: because the Church has no means to sanction entire bishops’ conference. Even five years after the deadline set by Rome, for example, some West-African countries have no guidelines for dealing with victims and perpetrators of abuse.”

The Catholic Church is not a big company, with the Pope as a sort of CEO. There is only so much Rome can do, even when everyone there cooperates, to enforce policies like the 2011 CDF instruction. Levelling accusations against the Curia or the Pope, while sometimes justified, is often too simplistic.

Photo credit: SIR

Outlining the path to the future – Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors gets to work

The Holy See’s new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors had its first meeting from 1 to 3 May. They focussed primarily at making recommendation to Pope Francis about how the Commission should function. On behalf of the Commission, members Marie Collins, Fr. Hans Zollner and Cardinal Seán O’Malley made the following press statement. This is important to get an idea of how the Church will combat sexual abuse by clergy and other Church workers in the future [emphases in bold mine]:

“As we begin our service together, we wish to express our heartfelt solidarity with all victims/survivors of sexual abuse as children and vulnerable adults and to share that, from the very beginning of our work, we have adopted the principle that the best interests of a child or vulnerable adult are primary when any decision is made.
During our meetings, each of us have been able to share our thoughts, experiences, and our aspirations for this Pontifical Commission. Responding to our Holy Father’s requests, these discussions focused on the Commission’s nature and purpose and on expanding the membership to include people from other geographical areas and other areas of expertise. Our conversations included many proposals for ways in which the Commission might collaborate with experts from different areas related to safeguarding children and vulnerable adults. We also met with some people from the Roman Curia regarding areas for future cooperation, including representatives from the Secretariat of State, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for the Clergy, the Vatican Press Office, and the Vatican Gendarmerie.

As an advisory commission to the Holy Father, the fruit of our work will be communicated to Pope Francis. In time, we will propose initiatives to encourage local responsibility around the world and the mutual sharing of “best practices” for the protection of all minors, including programs for training, education, formation, and responses to abuse. We have also shared with Pope Francis how important certain areas are to us in our future work. We see ensuring accountability in the Church as especially important, including developing means for effective and transparent protocols and processes.

We will propose Statutes to the Holy Father to express more precisely the Commission’s nature, structure, activity, and the goals. It is clear, for example, that the Commission will not deal with individual cases of abuse, but we can make recommendations regarding policies for assuring accountability and best practice. In the Statutes, we plan to make specific proposals regarding the importance of emphasizing ways for raising the awareness of all people regarding the tragic consequences of sexual abuse and of the devastating consequences of not listening, not reporting suspicion of abuse, and failing to support victims/survivors and their families.

As the Catholic people make our parishes, schools, and institutions safe for all children, we join with people of good will in our endeavour to ensure that children and vulnerable adults are protected from abuse. We request the prayers of all who wish to support the work of the Commission.”