Vatican commission for the protection of minors is all about spin

‘Rome’s serial “mishaps” in this area are neither stupid nor insane. They are about protecting itself’

Pope Francis salutes prelates at the end of the audience of the Curia at the Vatican in Rome. File photograph: EPA/L’Osservatore Romano

At times it is difficult to believe anything other than that Rome is being willfully stupid when it comes to its dealings with clerical child-sex abuse. This repeated failure, inevitably, prompts recall of Einstein’s much-quoted definition of stupidity, even insanity — doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

That’s how it may look, but Rome’s serial “mishaps” in this area are neither stupid nor insane. They are about protecting itself above all while obscuring that reality through spin.

That said, it is only fair to record that the Irish Catholic Church now has some of the most stringent child-protection measures in place, and enforced, anywhere in the Catholic world.

Fr Hans Zollner is a German Jesuit and one of the few figures at the Vatican with credibility where the abuse issue is concerned. A member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors since it was set up in 2014, few doubt his commitment to protecting children and supporting the abused.


He resigned from the commission last month and gave his reasons last week at a press conference in Rome. The commission, he said, had yet to take seriously the principles of “transparency, compliance and responsibility” and that there were people in the church, who “for personal or emotional reasons, create obstacles” in the fight against abuse.

The commission must not be merely engaged in “PR” but become a refuge for those abused by clergy and silenced by the church. It was “a continuous impression on the part of victims that they are not listened to”, he said, and that “many victims no longer expect anything” from the church.

He claimed commission president Cardinal Seán O’Malley had “put roses and flowers” (spin) on his (Fr Zollner’s) resignation statement last month, yet did not address problems repeatedly raised with him.

In 2017, two abuse survivors resigned from the commission for similar reasons. They included Dubliner Marie Collins, who felt “the attitude of a small number in the Vatican’s Curia is resistant to the work of the commission and has not been co-operative”. She too had to deal with a “roses and flowers” spin on her reasons, provided by senior Vatican figures. UK survivor Peter Saunders resigned because the commission was failing to do what he said it was supposed to do.

A founding member of the commission in 2014 was former president of the UK’s Royal College of Psychiatrists Sheila Hollins. During her time, its work “seemed to be blocked at every turn” she said. A Vatican decision to place the commission under the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has responsibility for dealing with priests accused of sexual abuse, was “anomalous”, she said, as “its [commission’s] brief is to prevent abuse and to address the care and healing of victims/survivors”.

In short, the commission has become a joke, presided over by an ineffectual Cardinal O’Malley, its president since 2014.

It was said about the Bourbon rulers of France after the French Revolution, that they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing. The same could be said about Rome and the abuse scandals.

The 2009 Murphy report, which dealt with the handling of clerical child sex abuse allegations in Dublin’s Catholic archdiocese, was in “no doubt”. It said “clerical child sexual abuse was covered up by the Archdiocese of Dublin and other Church authorities over much of the period covered by the commission’s remit (1975 -2004). The structures and rules of the Catholic Church facilitated that cover-up … The welfare of children, which should have been the first priority, was not even a factor to be considered in the early stages. Instead, the focus was on the avoidance of scandal and the preservation of the good name, status and assets of the institution and of what the institution regarded as its most important members — the priests.”

In Germany last week a report accused Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, former head of the German bishops’ conference, of shielding abuser priests. In January 2010, confronted with the first evidence of systemic abuse in the German Catholic Church, the archbishop promised a “complete investigation … and no cover-up”. The report said the archbishop’s 11-year episcopate — until 2013 — in the archdiocese of Freiberg “distinguished itself with concrete cover-up behaviour”.

The report, which uncovered 540 victims of clerical-sexual abuse and 250 documented abuser priests in the period 1945-2020, noted how the archbishop, as head of the German bishops’ conference, “repeatedly expressed his sympathy for those affected and their terrible experiences, [but] this made no difference to his decisions or non-decisions, and no change in his approach to accused priests”.

It continued: “The children, youths and parents affected appear not to have existed for him. He appeared to think his behaviour was the only correct approach, to protect the church.”

They learn nothing.

  • Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent