Father Hans Zollner’s Resignation Exposes Crisis at Vatican’s Sexual-Abuse-Prevention Commission
COMMENTARY: His public clash with Cardinal Seán O’Malley is an indication of how much the Holy Father’s reform agenda has faltered.
That the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, established in 2014 and one of the flagship reform efforts of Pope Francis, is in deep crisis was manifest this week in how its two most prominent figures clashed.
German Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, an original member of the commission and its most prominent one, resigned on Wednesday. Initially, Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, president of the commission, released a statement saying that Father Zollner had new duties, and thus was resigning, and thanking him for superlative service.
Father Zollner had a different view. He put out his own statement, a blistering denunciation of the commission’s failures in “responsibility, compliance, accountability and transparency,” all of which “have made it impossible for me to continue further.”
Cardinal O’Malley “updated” his statement on Thursday to say that he was “surprised, disappointed and strongly disagrees” with Father Zollner’s assessment of how poorly his commission is doing.
Both men have exemplary records of cleansing the Church of sexual abuse, especially Cardinal O’Malley, who has been dealing intensively with the issue for 30 years. So that the two would have such drastically different assessments of their joint work is an indication of how much the Holy Father’s reform agenda has faltered.
Recall the history. In 2014, Pope Francis established the commission in the same flush of reforming spirit in which he created the new Secretariat for the Economy. He chose two of his inner circle — the “council of cardinals” established in 2013 — to head up these initiatives. The late Cardinal George Pell was put in charge of the financial reform, and Cardinal O’Malley was given the sexual-abuse file. The initial years were promising.
However, after the 2018 papal trip to Chile, the most catastrophic in the history of papal travel, Cardinal O’Malley lost his prominence at the “papal court.” Pope Francis had antagonized large parts of Chilean society with his curt dismissal of the sexual-abuse crisis there, and the people stayed away in droves. After one final provocation in Chile, Cardinal O’Malley took the highly unusual step of criticizing the papal approach, which by then had dominated all news coming out of Chile.
Later that year the consequences for Cardinal O’Malley became clear: After the Theodore McCarrick revelations rocked the Catholic world that summer, Pope Francis decided on a high-profile sexual-abuse summit to be held in the Vatican in early 2019. He appointed Father Zollner as one of the key organizers, but not Cardinal O’Malley, despite being head of the relevant Roman office.
Instead, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago was invited to take the lead. The message was clear: The Holy Father was displeased with Cardinal O’Malley’s correction. Cardinal O’Malley was out, and Cardinal Cupich was in.
Indeed, what Cardinal Cupich proposed to his American brothers, known as the “metropolitan model,” became universal law for the Church in 2019 with the promulgation of Vos Estis Lux Mundi, the Holy Father’s signature legislation to hold bishops to account for enforcing sexual-abuse protocols.
On sex abuse, Cardinal O’Malley and the commission were no longer the engine of reform. Cardinal Cupich had a higher place at court. And a formidable force he is, having been sent to Puerto Rico before Pope Francis fired Bishop Daniel Torres. It also was Cardinal Cupich who Pope Francis tapped to investigate the Dicastery for Integral Human Development, after which the senior staff was dismissed, including Cardinal Peter Turkson.
All of this weakened the work of the commission of which Father Zollner was the most prominent member. He was frequently consulted by dioceses all over the world to which he traveled.
In recent years, he attempted to ground his reform efforts outside the commission; for example, in a new institute at the Gregorian University providing degree-granting education in child safeguarding. More recently, he took a consultant position with the Diocese of Rome.
Meanwhile, the new constitution for the Roman Curia, Praedicate Evangelium, promulgated somewhat hastily and sloppily last year, placed the commission inside the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. To no one’s surprise, no adequate provision had been worked out ahead of time for how the commission would function there, or whether it would retain its autonomy. Father Zollner cited that ambiguity, and the diminished priority it manifested, as one reason for his lack of confidence in the commission.
Father Zollner’s resignation makes it clear that, after 2018 in Chile, Pope Francis turned to new loyalists to spearhead his reform efforts. Something similar happened with the financial reforms, where the Holy Father removed authority he had previously given to Cardinal Pell when other figures in the papal court took objection.
There is no questioning either Father Zollner’s or Cardinal O’Malley’s commitment to reform and safeguarding. The commission, though, is now in crisis, with its top leadership in stark disagreement over what the nature of that crisis is.
- pontifical commission for the protection of minors
- preventing child abuse
- father hans zollner
- cardinal sean o'malley