One of the Church’s leading experts on safeguarding and clerical sexual abuse has said the exclusion of women from seminary formation has had “extremely harmful consequences,” and this “needs to change.”
Jesuit Father Hans Zollner told more than 200 people at a “Stolen Lives” webinar that “the role of women has been to clean up the mess that men have made.” The webinar was organized by the Root & Branch lay reform movement in Britain in conjunction with Survivor Voices and Scottish Laity Network.
Fr. Zollner said he regretted that workshops on safeguarding are attended mostly by women. “It seems that men are not only in the great majority responsible for the big mess and the hurt, but they also run away from facing that reality.”
The priest, director of the Institute of Anthropology Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care at the Pontifical Gregorian University and a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, said all the studies have shown that at least 80 percent of clerical sexual abuse was committed, not on children, but adolescents.
In the period between 1965 and 1982, the majority of victims were male adolescents. However, the numbers changed later when female altar servers were introduced, and as boarding schools run by priests and male religious began to admit girls.
“In the formation setting, the presence of women as counselors, as teachers and formators is necessary to bring about in males training for the priesthood or religious life a much more mature and realistic image and experience of this mysterious human being that is called a woman. Many who trained as seminarians years ago never got any chance to really interact with women in a meaningful way,” he said.
Fr. Zollner blamed the Council of Trent for introducing the seminary structure as it is known today. He said it had “run its course” and that he was hearing from bishops and religious superiors that they were aware of this.
“Nobody has a quick fix. I have no magical solution to offer, and I don’t think anybody has,” he cautioned. He suggested that seminary formation must help those training for priesthood or religious life with their moral, relational and sexual maturity through normal relationships with families, with women and with children.
One of those who welcomed Fr. Zollner’s observations was a former priest, Brian Devlin. He was one of four whistleblowers who lifted the lid on Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s sexual misconduct as a seminary director. The revelations caused Scotland’s most senior cleric to resign in 2013. Cardinal O’Brien died in 2018.
Elsewhere in his talk, the 55-year-old German theologian and psychologist said he now finds an awareness of abuse everywhere in the Church, which was not the case 10 years ago. He warned that the level of openness to addressing the issue is not the same everywhere.
“Very often I don’t encounter active resistance, but a more passive resistance,” he said. “Among clergy, the hierarchy within the Church, but also among a good number of people in the pews, there is still resistance to acknowledging these heinous crimes. They shun sitting down and listening to the stories of survivors and being with them in their pain and accompanying them on their journey.”
He also regretted the failure of bishops’ conferences to pass on to each other best practices, learning processes and proactive measures that could help preempt a repetition of mistakes.
“It is astounding that we don’t have a real transfer of experience and expertise; it’s really tragic, because I have seen bishops’ conferences and religious in some European countries repeat the same mistakes made in neighboring countries,” he said.
He said recent reports in places like Britain, Germany, Ireland, France and Australia showed clearly that the clerical sexual abuse is not a single case by a single perpetrator or a single bishop who covers up. The challenge is addressing abuse at a systemic level, Fr. Zollner said.
The 1,000-page report into the handling of abuse cases in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising over a 74-year period between 1945 to 2019, which was published at the end of January this year, showed that all seven archbishops appointed after World War II committed “grave mistakes” in their handling of allegations of abuse and the treatment of victims and in dealing with perpetrators, Fr. Zollner said.
He stressed that mistakes were made whether the bishops were liberal, progressive or conservative, theologians or canon lawyers, more pastoral or more intellectual.
“I see some change. But as I said before, I don’t think there is a quick fix, especially if we look at the Church as a whole,” he said.