Safeguarding expert resigns from papal commission over 'urgent concerns'

Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, pictured in Rome Nov. 9, 2021. (OSV News photo/Francesco Pistilli, KNA)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, a leading safeguarding expert, resigned from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors because of his concerns over how the advisory body had been working over the past years.

There are urgent "structural and practical issues," he said, "that led me to disassociate myself" from the papal commission.

A member of the papal commission since its establishment in 2014, Fr. Zollner had submitted his resignation to Pope Francis, who accepted it March 14, the priest said in a written statement released March 29, the date his resignation became public.

Thanking the commission's president, members, and staff, "both past and present, who share in the hope of building a safer church," Fr. Zollner wrote, "The protection of children and vulnerable persons must be at the heart of the Catholic Church’s mission. That was the hope I and many others have shared since the commission was first established in 2014."

"However, in my work with the commission, I have noticed issues that need to be urgently addressed and which have made it impossible for me to continue further," he wrote.

"Over the last years, I have grown increasingly concerned with how the commission, in my perception, has gone about achieving that goal, particularly in the areas of responsibility, compliance, accountability and transparency," he said, stressing that these are principles every church institution, "let alone the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, is bound to uphold."

There are currently about 20 members on the commission, whose task, according to Pope Francis when he established it, is to advise him on "the most opportune initiatives for protecting minors and vulnerable adults" and "to promote local responsibility in the particular churches," uniting their efforts to those of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, within which the commission was instituted in 2022.

Two prominent members who were also abuse survivors had resigned from the commission in 2017: Marie Collins, who cited "resistance," "reluctance" and a "lack of cooperation" from the then-doctrinal congregation; and Peter Saunders, who said he was frustrated with the pace of change and "disappointed" the commission was not doing what he thought it was intended to achieve.

In his March 29 statement, Fr. Zollner said he felt there has been: "a lack of clarity regarding the selection process of members and staff and their respective roles and responsibilities" and inadequate financial accountability, saying, "It is paramount for the commission to clearly show how funds are used in its work."

There should be greater transparency with decision-making processes, he wrote, saying, "Too often, there was insufficient information and vague communication with members on how particular decisions were taken."

A final concern, the priest said, was what seemed to be a lack of "regulations that govern the relationship between the commission and the Dicastery for the Doctrine of Faith, since the commission was placed within the dicastery last June."

"It is due to these structural and practical issues that led me to disassociate myself from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors," he wrote.

The statement came just a few hours after Fr. Zollner's resignation was made public in a statement by the commission's president, Boston Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley.

“The commission has been informed that Fr. Hans Zollner SJ, has asked to be relieved of his duties as a member," the cardinal wrote, saying the priest, "told me that he came to this decision after reflecting on his recent appointment as consultant for safeguarding to the Diocese of Rome."

Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, papal vicar for Rome, announced March 3 that he appointed Fr. Zollner to be a consultant for the diocese's new office dedicated to safeguarding minors and vulnerable people. The priest is also director of the Institute of Anthropology: Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University.

"In light of this and all his other responsibilities, he has asked to be excused from his place on the commission and the Holy Father has accepted his request with the deepest of thanks for his many years of service," the cardinal wrote.

Since the commission was founded, the cardinal said, "Fr. Hans has been an abiding presence over the years as we have seen our commission grow and find its way as the center for safeguarding throughout the church."

"He has become an ambassador for safeguarding and will continue to be a constant presence in this important work," the cardinal said. "We look forward to continuing our cooperation with Father Hans in our common commitment to making the church a safe home for all."

In his statement, Fr. Zollner said, "I remain open to discuss safeguarding with the commission and hope that the aforementioned issues can be resolved in a sustainable way."



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