Priest on PBS special offers frank accounting of past, hope for future - Catholic Courier
The Vatican, Rome. The Vatican, Rome. (Courtesy of © Craig Hastings Padi Productions S.L.)

Priest on PBS special offers frank accounting of past, hope for future

WASHINGTON (CNS) — If you tune in to the PBS special “Inside the Vatican,” slated to air 9-11 p.m. EDT April 28, you’ll have to wait more than an hour and a half to see him, and to hear what he has to say.

But German Jesuit Father Hans Zollner’s words are a necessary tonic, even if it’s sonic castor oil to some.

Father Zollner wears many hats. He is the president of the Center for Child Protection in Rome, head of the Institute of Psychology and academic vice rector at the Pontifical Gregorian University, also in Rome, and serves as a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and as a consultor to the Vatican Congregation for Clergy.

What he has to say in the special about the scourge of clergy sexual abuse should be required listening.

Certainly Nick Kent, the executive producer of “Inside the Vatican,” thinks so.

When choosing people on whom to focus when filming the documentary, you hope for good outcomes with them. But in Father Zollner’s case, “we were immensely fortunately about it,” Kent told Catholic News Service in a phone interview from London.

“We had no idea the abuse scandal was going to blow up the way that it did. We had been working with the Vatican to that point for two and a half years. We’d been filming for six months or more. So we’d already established quite a basis of trust,” Kent said. In approaching Father Zollner, he added, “we talked about what we were doing and why we were doing it. He was very open to it and very helpful for us.”

Filming took place in 2018. Pope Francis was getting ready for a papal visit to Ireland, a country that was in turmoil after waves of revelations of clerical sex abuse. Two weeks before the trip, a Pennsylvania grand jury report covering a 70-year period starting in 1947 revealed that more than 300 priests and other church workers in six of the state’s dioceses had been credibly accused of abusing more than 1,000 minors.

In “Inside the Vatican,” Father Zollner said Pope Francis has raised the issue of clergy sex abuse “a lot” and “put it on the agenda of the whole world.”

“There have been committed cover-ups that I could not imagine possible to happen,” Father Zollner says. “If you are honest, if you are serious about our Catholic Christian religious life, this goes against my ideals, our ideals.”

He adds, “This is going to stay with us for a very long time, and we need to face it. If we do not face it actively, it will come back to us in one way or another. So either you will take it on, or it will take you on.”

Father Zollner trained as a psychologist and psychotherapist in the mid-1990s. “We were certainly among the very first psychology students in any kind of university worldwide that learned something about sexual violence and what is called sexual deviances, like voyeurism and sadomasochism, or pedophilia,” he says in the documentary.

“Society needs to reach a certain level of willingness and preparedness to take this on. Because it is like looking in a mirror, where you see the face of a monster — and no one wants to face it that easily and is uncomfortable with it, of course.”

Shown in his office, Father Zollner says, “There is a sense of, within the church, a priest can do whatever he wants to do without being responsible for it: ‘Because I am a priest, I can take whatever I wish, and be it a sexual encounter with a young person.'”

Because of this, he adds, it becomes “a huge crisis for us in terms of lack of trust and lack of confidence. Because who else is supposed to live what he preaches, if not a priest?”

The anger about the abuse cover-ups, which Father Zollner said is justified, “is the expression for a deep disappointment, but the standard that we see had been presented it this high, and what has been done is this low,” lifting his hands up and pushing them down to emphasize his point.

Spoken over a scene in a Pontifical Gregorian University classroom, he says, “This is the first university that offers an academic degree in the area of safeguarding. We need specialists that are really capable not only executing the guidelines, putting them into place, but also developing them, elaborating them, improving them, in dialogue with science, with police, with the law systems in the country.

“So we need people who are more knowledgeable, more competent and more prepared to do whatever can be done so that young people are safe.”

Despite the attention given to abuse issues in recent years, “this is an era which not many people speak easily. It’s coming up now, but still there is an uncomfortableness and a lack of willingness to really take it on as a society and as a church, Father Zollner said, adding, “There is much need for preparing a different generation of people through education and formation. This is not an immediate solution for anything, but it is the a start for a better future.”

Father Zollner says in the future, there will be “a Catholic Church with a different face.” He also is given the last words in “Inside the Vatican”: “Please don’t give up. We need you to continue the journey. We know it will be demanding, unnerving, embarrassing, … but what else can we do? Give up? No.”

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Pattison is media editor for Catholic News Service.

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