Father Hans Zollner, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, speaks to Vatican Radio about the Day of Prayer for Victims and Survivors of Abuse, which many bishops’ conferences observe on the first Friday of Lent.
By Robin Gomes
The Day of Prayer for Victims and Survivors of Abuse, observed on the first Friday of Lent by several local Churches across the globe, is an initiative in response to the request of Pope Francis to all the bishops’ conferences of the world. During the meeting on the “Protection of Minors in the Church”, held in the Vatican on 21-24 February 2019, the Pope asked the presidents of the bishops’ conferences to choose an appropriate day in the liturgical calendar for this purpose. The Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference marks the day on 11 September in conjunction with the National Day for the Protection of Children.
Prayer and action
According to Father Hans Zollner, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, prayer is a fundamental expression of the Christian faith, but action is also needed. Speaking to Vatican Radio, the Jesuit priest, who is also president of the Centre for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University of Rome, said that alongside action to promote justice, there must also be an effort to change the culture within the Church itself.
He underscored the importance of common prayer, stressing that prayer becomes powerful when two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus. Public prayer, he said, is also a reminder that we must not flee from this plague, as the last two Popes have asked.
Regarding progress made against abuse in the Church in the past two years since the first international meeting on the protection of minors in February 2019, Father Zollner said the initiative has had “some visible fruits and others less visible”.
The visible ones that have had very tangible effects regard legislation in the Church. In May 2019, the Pope promulgated the Motu Proprio Vos estis lux mundi, a new law with which, for example, the procedures are clarified in the event that a bishop, a provincial or a general of a religious congregation, does not carry out what they should, according to the canonical norms, because of negligence or to cover up cases of abuse. Later, in December of that year, the Pontiff made the possession and disclosure of child pornography material punishable by raising the age of minors from 14 to 18. In addition, he abolished the ‘pontifical secret’ linked with cases of sexual abuse.
Change of hearts
Among the less visible fruits, Father Zollner said, are those that mature in people’s hearts. He said many of the episcopal conference presidents and representatives of religious congregations who attended the February 2019 meeting, left Rome with a changed heart, as many publicly acknowledged. They listened to the victims because they understood that the issue of the prevention of abuse should not be a marginal issue but must be an integral part of the mission of the Church. Father Zollner expressed a strong conviction that “the conversion of the heart will also bring fruits that will also be translated into concrete actions”.
The Jesuit priest also said the February 2019 meeting has generated a “level of awareness” regarding abuse in the local Churches. When it was still possible to travel before the pandemic, he said he was invited by several bishops’ conferences that were earlier not interested in the issue, saying the problem of abuse did not exist in their countries. But they discovered that this was not true and committed themselves to “fight such a terrible plague very seriously”. This awareness, Father Zollner said, has grown not only among the hierarchy but also among the simple faithful.
He said that this urgency regarding the defence of minors has also been visible in the Jesuit-run Pontifical Gregorian University. This semester, the university’s Centre for Child Protection has added two diplomas, one in English and the other in Spanish. The students who take part in them have been sent by their bishops and their superiors, Father Zollner said. They receive comprehensive training from theology to sociology in order to better understand their future work, because they will be the ones who will be responsible for the prevention of abuse of minors in the local Churches, he added.