"This is important work, keep it up!" said Pope Francis three times Tuesday morning as he greeted Prof. Hans Zollner, the German Jesuit who heads the Gregorian University Centre for Child Protection. The Centre has just finished hosting an annual English language conference - sponsored by the US Bishops and with the participation of the bishops of Sri Lanka - this year dedicated to the theme "Prevention of abuse: We are going Global."
On the very day that the United Nations has dedicated to Innocent Children Victims of Aggression, Pope Francis wanted to meet with the Centre staff who are helping bishops conferences, religious congregations, local churches and society at large face the issue of the abuse of children and find the best way forward to make sure that it is eradicated.
"It is always a privilege to meet the Holy Father and this morning three people from the Gregorian University Centre for Child Protection were invited to attend morning Mass, because we are also at the end of an English language conference, that is organized every year by the American bishops plus the Sri Lankan bishops. This year the topic was 'Prevention of abuse: We are going Global' and certainly our aim from the Centre for Child Protection is that we do something on a global level and therefore we were very glad that some months after we presented the same project to Pope Benedict, we could present it today to Pope Francis. He listened very carefully when we explained about our procedure our measure and our scope, that it is an international one, a truly Catholic one and his words - more than two or three times he repeated - keep up the work! Go on! This is very important!"
The Centre for Child Protection was founded in 2010 as a cooperation between the Institute of Psychology of the Pontifical Gregorian University (Rome, Italy), the Department for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Psychotherapy of Ulm University Hospital (Germany), and the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising (Germany).
Its main purpose is the creation of a global E-Learning training centre in academic resources for the pastoral professions responding to the sexual abuse of minors, taking into account multilingual and intercultural issues. The responsibility for the project and the Centre lies with Prof. Hans Zollner SJ, Accademic Vice- President of the Pontifical Gregorian University.
Speaking to Emer McCarthy of Vatican Radio, Fr. Zollner admits that it is a daunting task that requires patience and perseverance. That a change of attitude is still needed in many local churches on continents where the scourge of child abuse has yet to come to the fore, but he also adds that a lot has been done in the first three years of the Centre's work:
Q: Fr. Zollner the Centre for Child Protection was set up in response to Benedict XVI's call for greater attention to the very important and sensitive issue of child abuse. How is your work progressing? How are bishops conferences responding to the Pope's request for safeguarding standards to be established in local Churches and how is your Centre helping?
"The guidelines have to be sent in to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, we are not directly involved there. As far as I know - and this was publically said by the new Promoter of Justice Fr. Oliver? in February - around 80% of bishops conferences around the world had sent in their guidelines. Certainly many continents have already sent them in like Europe North America and I think South America too. There are still some countries where you would have some difficulties for a variety of reasons, but they are certainly behind that and are seeking others help to finalize their proposals. The Holy See then revises those and sends them back with some indications and finally they can be put in place in the various countries.
Now our Centre for Child Protection is helpful in so far as those bishops conferences who send representatives to our symposiums have received guidance for example; what do you do with abusers, what can you and should you offer to victims and what can you do for the prevention of abuse.
The last point is specifically our intention that we help bishops conferences, religious congregations, local churches dioceses and so forth to really do whatever can be done, what is humanly speaking possible so that less abuse is committed in the Church and in society.
We have to remember that in this three years of the pilot phase we still have a limited number of participants and diocese that are online and do the E-learning program. But from 2015 on we will try to enlarge that scope to more dioceses and religious congregations who for us are the multiplicators of this work. We see that this is the work of changing attitudes we have to remember in North Europe and America that this has been an issue for some 30 years but in many countries the churches themselves - the attitude still has to change more and more. This is ground work and we still need to continue with patience and perseverance."