Church must follow, accept local laws on abuse

Local laws and court decisions regarding clerical sexual abuse and its cover-up must be respected, Fr Hans Zollner says.

Zollner, who is a leading expert in child protection and one of the chief organisers of February’s summit on child protection, says the Church’s responsibility to obey the laws of the land was clarified several years ago.

He says in 2011 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith told every bishops’ conference that the Church must obey civil laws regarding cases of abuse.

“So, if a state – in a durably democratic, regulated and legitimate situation – arrives at the conclusion that a representative of the Church, whether a deacon, priest, bishop or cardinal has committed a crime, this must not only be respected, it must be accepted.

“This must be the norm of the Church.”

Zollner says since the February summit several bishops’ conferences have already have revised or begun revising their guidelines for protecting children and handling abuse allegations.

In doing so, some have revised their guidelines to find and implement ways of “cooperating with Civil Authorities”.

Zollner says many Conference presidents were reduced to tears when they heard testimonies of survivors of child sexual abuse at the summit and some are seeking the help of the Centre for Child Protection in the formation of Church personnel on the ground.

In addition, projects promised by the Vatican will soon be bearing fruit, he says.

One such project involves promulgation of guidelines for the Vatican City State.

Another is a “vademecum” or handbook the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has been developing. It will explain in a step-by-step process, how bishops and religious superiors should handle abuse allegations. It will also include advice as to how they should prepare the relevant documents for the doctrinal congregation when an accusation is found to be credible.

There is no longer any question of people being protected because of their status in the Church.

The guilty verdicts against Cardinals George Pell and Philippe Barbarin demonstrate that church officials, including cardinals, are “no longer untouchable” and that governments will apply the law to them as well, Zollner says.

Pell is maintaining his innocence and is appealing his conviction.

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