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Meeting with the victims of sexual abuse. Father Hans Zollner, “when the Pope cries, the whole Church cries with him”

"Those tears are a relief, certainly a beginning, the acknowledgement that I am no longer alone but that there is a person that is walking with me in this path of suffering.” Father Hans Zollner, member of the Vatican Commission against paedophilia, President of the Centre for Child Protection established within the Gregorian University, commented on yesterday’s moving meeting between Pope Francis and a group of victims of sexual abuse at the Nunciature in Santiago del Chile.  

Indelible wounds, irreparable damage, inferred by men of the Church, often on children. Yesterday, faced with these deep scars, the Pope broke out in tears. It happened in Chile, in the seat of the Nunciature where Francis had a “strictly private” meeting with a group of victims of sexual abuse. Nobody else was present: only the Pope and the victims; to enable them to share their suffering. In the awareness that he was visiting a land severely impacted by sexual abuses committed by men of the Church, many of them widely known, Pope Francis dedicated his first words to this scandal. “Here I can not help but express the pain and shame I feel at the irreparable damage caused to children by Church’s ministers – the Pope said addressing Chile’s civic authorities at the Moneda Palace – . “I join with my brothers in the episcopate, knowing that it is a matter of justice to ask for forgiveness, and to support the victims with all our strength. At the same time we must work so that it does not happen again”, the Holy Father said.  Father Hans Zollner (Jesuit priest) is a member of the Vatican Commission against Paedophilia, President of Centre Child Protection of the Pontifical Gregorian University.

Father Zollner, how important are Pope Francis’ words?
They are extremely important: pain and shame is what one feels when facing the fact that clerics abused people’s trust and friendship, especially those of children and minors, who through physical, psychological, sexual and spiritual abuse inflicted harm, in many cases permanent, in many people’s lives. Shame and pain over the fact that this was committed by people who by vocation were called to spread the Good News, to bear witness to God’s closeness, especially towards the most vulnerable.

Before these stories of abuse, yesterday the Pope broke out in tears. As a person working in this field, how important is it to meet the victims, look them in the eye, listen to their suffering?

Closeness is a medicine for the soul.

It’s what is described as empathy, the ability to feel, perceive and share the other person’s suffering, desperation, anger, lack of hope, the inability to heal the wounds. This profound empathy originates the tears. When a person breaks out in tears it means that that person’s heart was touched. Those tears are a relief, certainly a beginning, the acknowledgement that I’m no longer alone and that a person is walking with me. It’s what I personally witnessed three years ago, in July 2014. I had accompanied two Germans citizens in their meeting with the Pope as their translator. They had been victims of abuse committed by priests. Seeing the Pope’s reaction in the face of suffering, perceiving his profound empathy and opening his heart to receive that pain, was an impressive experience. I had the same experience with Pope Benedict, when he met the victims of abuse in Germany. Also on that occasion the victims said that the Pope had wept with them. The Pope is the first representative of the Church and of Christ on earth. When the Pope cries the entire Church is crying, Christ Himself is crying with them.

Victims organizations are demonstrating in Santiago, demanding that justice be made inside the Church. These protests are a sign that many of these people continue feeling that they are not being listened to, that some doors are still closed. What is your answer in your capacities as member of the Pontifical Commission for the protection of minors?
The Pope himself defined the parameters to punish clerics who failed to follow Church rules. Such rules can be said to correspond to the legislation in force in many countries like Italy. However, justice is not only a juridical concept. Justice – as I have said to the bishops on many occasions – extends beyond the mere enforcement of the law. It encompasses in-depth listening, sincere attention, empathetically tuning in with our neighbour. The Pope stands as the role model of all leaders of local Churches, of provincials of religious Orders who are called to stand with the victims first of all, to listen to them. Having met many victims of abuse I can assure that in many cases listening produces greater justice than legal proceedings, which must take place in any case. But such proceedings will never succeed in fully pacifying the hearts. Even when a criminal has been sentenced it doesn’t necessarily mean that justice has been made because

The victims’ wounds remain open throughout their lives, so the Church will need to be committed to offer help, support, and whatever is requested and needed by the victims.  

Some complained about the slow pace of legal proceedings in Vatican offices. Could you offer some assurance that also in the Vatican Pope Francis’ words represent the frame of reference, along with the zero tolerance policy?
During the meeting with the Pontifical Commission for the protection of minors past September, even the Pope said that the Church reacted too slowly in the face of this phenomenon. Proceedings within the Holy See can be slow in some cases but they can also follow a hasty pace. It depends on the case, and we should not forget that the office in question has a staff of 12 people in charge of the proceedings, tasked with ascertaining the facts in the framework of each Country and in the respective languages,  with determining the truth of the allegations and reaching a conclusion, i.e. whether or not there should be a criminal conviction.

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