When a child-protection advocate resigned from a papal advisory board in early March, she did so because of growing frustration with persistent resistance and a “toxic” sense of superiority from some in the Roman Curia.
A number of church leaders on the front lines promoting child
protection policies have also long noted the biggest challenge they face
is a cultural one — an aversion to the unknown, playing it safe rather
than speaking up, and denial and defensiveness to protect an institution
over a possible victim.
Despite four years of Pope Francis’ calls to break down walls erected
out of fear and ivory towers built on arrogance, Marie Collins said a
kind of enclave mentality could still be found in some corners of the
While there are many people who are “open and more willing to listen
and learn,” the Curia and the Vatican tend to be “very much a closed-in
system where people are talking to others with the same views and not
being challenged at all, and so things appear normal that are not
actually normal,” said Collins, an Irish survivor of clerical sex abuse,
who had served on the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of
Minors since its inception in 2014.
So when anything from the outside challenges the way things have
traditionally been done, “it is almost an instinct to resist it, and
that is what’s so difficult,” she told Catholic News Service after her
Attitudes that avoid or squelch open, respectful dialogue are
pervasive in the wider church as well, she said, and they have “to be
challenged right from the seminary on up.” Priests and religious who
“know how damaging this clericalism is to the church” need to start
“speaking up in their own ranks” and working to eradicate it.
One priest working from within is Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, a
psychologist and academic vice rector of the Pontifical Gregorian
University in Rome. He is also a member of the papal commission for
safeguarding; his work there focuses on what is needed in priestly and
religious formation — specifically in selecting and fostering
well-balanced, mature, responsible servants of Christ who truly seek to
“live out what they promised to do.”
“From my understanding, this is the key to everything,” the priest told CNS.
There are many clear guidelines for proper formation, particularly
from St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, he said, but “I don’t think
that many church leaders understand or at least they don’t show many
signs that they follow all the papal instructions on this.”
Many problems that emerge after formation are because of “a growing
gap between the human side and the spiritual side. People may still say
Mass and prayers, but they don’t feel connected to what they’re doing
anymore. At a certain point it becomes unbearable and they act out or
drop out,” he said.
“If you train people so they don’t show their real face and are
threatened if they bring out the real issues” because they fear they
will be shamed, ostracized or even dismissed from pursuing a vocation,
then it is obvious people will not want to bring “the real stuff” out
into the open, he added.
Seminaries and religious life, Father Zollner said, need to foster
the trust that “it’s safe” to explore problems and tensions, and no one
will be “dismissed, judged, shouted at or dealt with in a cold way when
they show their real face.”
“I believe that many of the young men don’t feel invited to talk
about normal things, things that are normal for young people, so they
bury that,” which, according to St. Ignatius, he said, lets problems
that could have been dealt with earlier “grow bigger and become like
However, he said, seminarians must be responsible for their own formation, even if their formators are weak.
Understanding and being responsible for one’s own emotional,
spiritual and human growth are key for creating accountable, responsible
leaders, who will someday be in charge of a parish or a diocese and its
staff and community, said Jesuit Father Stefan Dartmann, rector of the
Pontificium Collegium Germanicum et Hungaricum in Rome — a
German-speaking seminary serving dioceses in northern and central
Run by the Jesuits, the college puts unique emphasis on strengthening
the seminarian’s sense of discernment and “co-responsibility” in his
formation, and students are allowed to be part of the college leadership
The aim is to create men who can ask, “What has to be done,” not just
for themselves, but for the whole community, he told CNS. This is
critical because “we’ve had bishops who we know never asked” about
protection training and protocols “because they felt very uncomfortable,
so they waited,” he said.
There is “no reason to avoid going into the problems — it’s the other
way around,” you are obliged to foresee and act, said Father Dartmann,
who was at the tail end of his term as Jesuit provincial in Germany when
the abuse crisis in the church, including in Jesuit schools, exploded
That experience, he said, was “a Copernican revolution” for them
because it put the point of view of the victims — not the church — at
the center of concern. “I remember that ‘The truth will set you free,’
was very important for me” in learning to listen to, accept and be
transformed by so much scandal.
If people let themselves be affected on a deeper level by what abuse
did and does to children, then protection policies can become a real
“apostolic priority,” he said.
Instead, if it is only seen as just another “obligation” or yet
another burden to add to an already heavy curriculum or ministry, “then
it has no effect and it doesn’t make me trustworthy,” Father Dartmann
It has to come from “our own discovery of the Gospel and freedom” and the desire to be in every way like Christ, he said.