February meeting on abuse to have 'synodal dimension,' child protection expert says

By Hannah Brockhaus

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The approach of Pope Francis’ meeting of bishops in February, on the topic of abuse prevention in the Church, will reflect the synodal journey, Fr. Hans Zollner told Vatican Media Friday.

In a Nov. 23 interview, Zollner – who is a member of the four-person planning committee for the Feb. 21-24 summit – said the meeting “is very important for the Church” and “it is necessary that the awareness of a synodal journey be shared – cum Petro et sub Petro.”

Referring to the “consultative” phase of meeting planning, which is being launched soon, Zollner told the Vatican news outlet that “it is necessary that [the meeting] be prepared well, and that it involve all of the Episcopal Conferences right away.”

This phase, he said, should include sharing of “information, reflections, the spirit of prayer and penance, and proposals for new concrete actions.”

He also stated that the work bishops’ conferences have already done to craft anti-abuse measures will have a “fundamental place” at the Vatican summit.

Zollner, a child protection expert, is a member of the Pontifical Council for the Protection of Minors (PCPM) and president of the Center for the Protection of Minors at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

Nov. 23 he was named a member of the organizing committee for the Vatican meeting on abuse prevention, which will be attended by Pope Francis, the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences, the leaders of the Eastern Catholic Churches, and heads of certain Vatican offices.

Pope Francis designated Zollner the contact person for the organizing committee.

Part of the consultative work going on during the planning phase of the meeting – which also involves some clergy sex abuse survivors and members of the PCPM – is to collect together “and better harmonize,” the experiences of the bishops’ conferences, he said.

“The Holy Father is convinced that the scourge, the ‘sacrilege’ as he has said numerous times, of abuse is a problem that does not pertain to a single country, and certainly not only to western countries. It involves every country,” he stated, adding that “it requires a firm and universal response, within specific contexts and cultures.”

During the meeting itself, the structure will provide “for the freest and most fruitful encounter possible,” and will include prayer, reflection, analysis, and proposals. Pope Francis will be present at all of the working sessions, recalling the “synodal experience,” Zollner said.

The planning stage includes several concrete steps under the direction of the pope, he noted. One of these steps is sending a questionnaire to the episcopal invitees to hear about their experiences and challenges.

The organizing committee will also prep foundational documents for the meeting’s participants.

Zollner acknowledged that the expectations for the meeting are incredibly high in some corners of the Church, and said he believes these expectations are reasonable “given the gravity of the scandal that has shocked and wounded so many people, believers and non-believers, in so many countries.”

He pointed to what he sees as evidence of the pope and the Vatican’s commitment to the issue in Francis’ Aug. 20 letter “to the People of God,” and in the Holy See’s Oct. 6 letter on Archbishop Theodore McCarrick.

“The Holy Father has convoked the meeting in February – an unprecedented decision – precisely because he is aware that the protection of minors is a fundamental priority for the Church, for its mission, and not only for its credibility,” he said.

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