A top Vatican anti-abuse expert has hit out at clericalism and Catholic “paternalism”, recalling that “every baptised person is co-responsible for the holiness of the Church”.

– Thinking through “what went so terribly wrong” in the abuse crisis

Jesuit Hans Zollner, the head of the Pontifical Gregorian University’s Centre for Child Protection and a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, spoke to Crux March 13 in the wake of the cancellation for coronavirus concerns of a Vatican “theological laboratory” March 11-14 entitled “Doing Theology in the Face of Abuse”.

“One of our main goals is to create a long-term theologically based conversation amongst theologians from around the world in regard to the abuse crisis”, Zollner explained about the laboratory’s goals.

The Jesuit, who is also on the Pope’s new special task force charged with helping the world’s bishops implement effective child protection measures, added: “often, we place total responsibility on psychologists and canon lawyers to take action when it comes to this issue [abuse], while ignoring the deep-rooted theological thought behind it as well”.

“A theological analysis will help to understand what went so terribly wrong [in the abuse crisis] in our ideas about the Church, bishops, priests, and deacons, about the relationship between justice and forgiveness, and about grace and redemption offered by the suffering and risen Lord”, Zollner said.

– Clericalism, “thinking that the mere fact of being a priest or bishop can justify special treatment”

As to the contributing factors to the clerical sex abuse crisis, Vatican expert Zollner pointed to two in particular: clericalism and Church paternalism.

“Clericalism, as the pope frequently says, is the temptation to think and act as if the mere fact of being a priest or bishop can justify special treatment, special privileges, and an exemption from the rules that apply to others. It denotes an inherent sense of entitlement”, the Jesuit explained.

He said the danger with this attitude is believing that “the Church only has a patriarchal structure or that only priests are important”.

In fact, he continued, “it is important to affirm that [the Church] is also very much matriarchal.

“In every age, prophetic women have been leaders. Women like Dorothy Day, Mary MacKillop, Frances of Rome, Hildegard von Bingen, the early church ‘matriarch’ Saint Macrina, and Mary the Mother of God herself – all carried out their missions, which were often in tension with what some men in their lives wanted”, Zollner recalled.

– Paternalism, “the hierarchy not involving the gifts of the faithful” and the faithful “believing bishops to be omniscient”

But the anti-abuse expert went on to explain that he considers a “deeper problem” in the Church apart from clericalism to be “the paternalistic attitude that exists”.

“This has two sides: both with those in the hierarchy not involving the gifts of a wide variety of faithful, and on the other hand, we have lay people who enable a paternalistic attitude by believing bishops to be omniscient and having the power to affect immediate change”.

Zollner was careful to point out that in diagnosing this paternalism he was not referring to accountability for crimes for abuse, insisting that “we all ought to expect that priests and bishops are held accountable” for what they do or fail to do in the protection of minors.

“What I want to affirm is every baptised person is co-responsible for the holiness of the Church and needs to be prayerful about that and take action so that the community of the Church is ever more a witness to the Gospel”, Zollner clarified.

– New Vatican task force to ensure “victims are being listened to and justice is being done”

With those two principal factors behind the abuse and cover-up crisis duly recognised, the Jesuit said the hope now, with the Pope’s new special task force on child protection, is the “speedy and consistent” application everywhere in the world of the new guidelines Francis has put in place since his 2019 Vatican anti-abuse summit with bishops from around the globe.

“I take it that the task force will also assist bishops’ conferences… so that victims are being listened to, justice is being done, and the commitment to all kinds of safeguarding measures is steadfast and sustainable”, Zollner said.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.