What is Happening at the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors?

Some days ago, Fr. Hans Zollner made waves across the Church when he announced his resignation from the papal commission charged with helping bishops around the world to develop child protection and safeguarding policies, and with advising the pope on his role in safeguarding reform efforts. 

Newsroom (30/03/2022 08:03 PM, Gaudium Press)  It wasn’t just the fact that Zollner resigned which raised eyebrows, but the manner and the mixed messages that followed.

Just moments after Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, had released a statement thanking Zollner for his service and benignly attributing his departure to a new assignment with the Diocese of Rome, Zollner put out his own communique blasting the group for alleged shortcomings in “responsibility, compliance, accountability and transparency.”

Those failures, the 56-year-old Zollner said, “have made it impossible for me to continue further” – indirectly creating the impression that O’Malley and his team were trying to sweep the reality of the situation under the rug.

In an updated statement released Thursday 30 March 2023, O’Malley said he was “surprised, disappointed and strongly disagree with his [Zollner’s] publicly-issued assertions challenging the commission’s effectiveness.”

In his version of events yesterday, Zollner said he felt compelled to abandon the commission because of mounting frustrations over several issues:

  • “A lack of clarity regarding the selection process of members and staff and their respective roles and responsibilities.”
  • “Financial accountability, which I believe is inadequate.”
  • “Transparency on how decisions are taken in the commission. Too often, there was insufficient information and vague communication with members on how particular decisions were taken.”
  • “Regulations that govern the relationship between the commission and the Dicastery for the Doctrine of Faith.” (Last June, Pope Francis placed the commission within the doctrinal office, raising questions about its independence.)

“The protection of children and vulnerable persons must be at the heart of the Catholic Church’s mission,” Zollner said. “Over the last years, I have grown increasingly concerned with how the commission, in my perception, has gone about achieving that goal.”

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Systemic Issues

Zollner’s exit is not the first high-profile defection. In 2016, abuse survivor Peter Saunders was placed on leave from the pontifical commission because of friction with other members and never returned; in 2017, the only other survivor on the panel, Irish laywoman Marie Collins, stepped down, citing recalcitrance in other Vatican offices to cooperate with the commission’s recommendations.

In March 2021, American Monsignor Robert Oliver was abruptly replaced as the secretary of the commission, learning of the move only after a Vatican news bulletin announcing reappointments to the body omitted his name.

Zollner’s resignation came just days after Pope Francis promulgated a tweaked version of Vos estis lux mundi, with modifications that address some points, but not the most direct criticism of the pope’s procedural norms for investigating bishops — that without transparency about who is under investigation, and for what, there can be no certainty that justice is being accomplished.

It also comes amid the ongoing scandal centred on Zollner’s own religious community — namely, the Vatican’s handling of Fr. Marko Rupnik, a well-known Jesuit accused of heinous acts of spiritual and psychological abuse, who is widely perceived to have skirted justice after allegations surfaced, with at least support from high-ranking Vatican officials.

His good name has even been borrowed to lend credibility to plans he doesn’t support — last year, Germany’s Bishop Franz Bode announced he would stay in office despite a report indicating serious administrative negligence, and Bode implied that Zollner was supportive of that plan. Only after being pressed on that notion by The Pillar — with Zollner remaining dutifully silent — did Bode’s spokesman eventually admit that Zollner had not supported Bode’s plan.

He told Awake Milwaukee this month that Vos estis lux mundi is “not working,” and agreed with a commenter who said that Vos estis is applied inconsistently and without transparency.

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Zollner criticized both the text of Vos estis and its application, lamenting that instincts toward institutional and personal self-protection still stood in the way of real reform.

Future Plans 

One could read Zollner’s exit, therefore, as another nail in the coffin for the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors; when it was launched in 2014 as the tip of the spear for the pope’s reform effort, it would be revealed as a paper tiger – capable only of giving advice, and that more often ignored than acted upon.

However, there is another lens for viewing Zollner’s exit, one which would place the focus not only on principle but also on bureaucratic turf wars.

According to this optic, Zollner hopes to build a new institute at the Pontifical Gregorian University into a leading centre in Catholicism for anti-abuse resources and programming, with budgets and staffing commensurate with such aims.

The idea, apparently,  would be that the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors would act as a general contractor, designing and approving projects but often relying on sub-contractors, including Zollner’s institute, to deliver some of the nuts-and-bolts programs and services.

That vision, however, would seem slightly at odds with the language of O’Malley’s statement yesterday, in which he described the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors as “the center for safeguarding throughout the Church” – not a general contractor, in other words, but a comprehensive construction company in itself.


But will Zollner’s warning and resignation lead to a Vatican turnaround or a reform of the pontifical commission itself?

If reform was possible, Zollner would not have quit in the first place. But if reform isn’t going to happen, and if serious abuse advocates are likely to read Zollner’s defection as a sign to stay away from the PCPM’s work, the only immediate likely outcome is a commission with less credibility and less authority, situated in the middle of a reform effort with less credibility.

Of course, Cardinal O’Malley or some other official will probably say in the days to come that Zollner’s criticisms merit reflection and careful consideration. But they are unlikely to get a wholesale endorsement — because recognizing the problems of the PCPM would probably involve recognizing similar problems in Vos estis itself.

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Acknowledging, for example, the need for more transparency in the PCPM would probably require mandating more transparency about Vos estis investigations themselves, which the pope did not do in his slightly modified version of Vos estis promulgated Saturday.

Mandating more financial transparency for the PCPM would raise the question of the lingering requests for financial transparency about McCarrick’s gift-giving habits, and their effect on his career in the Church.

In short, Zollner’s criticisms of the PCPM are embedded in the broad criticism of the pope’s entire reform agenda — and Pope Francis has committed the weight of his office to the path of reform that Zollner criticizes. It would be difficult to concede that the commission at the centre of his plan is operating with the deficiencies Zollner indicates.

In recent interviews and other contexts, Pope Francis has generally said that his path of reform is the right one, and on the right track, even if he acknowledges a need for some Church leaders to get better on board.

High-ranking churchmen have lined up to support that approach — with Cardinal Blase Cupich, for example, promising on Saturday “that the Holy Father is going to hold people responsible, not only those who have committed abuse, but those in authority who have responsibility for handling them in a way that protects victims and gives justice to victims.”

Going forward, the challenge for Pope Francis and his advisers would seem to be to convince people that the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors isn’t simply smoke and mirrors, which will include clarifying its relationship with other centres of thought and energy in the church devoted to recovery from the abuse scandals.

  • Brett Sequeira

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