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World War Z? Zollner's resignation and the credibility of papal reform

Fr. Hans Zollner made waves across the Church Wednesday, 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. 

Fr. Hans Zollner, SJ. Credit: Crackdownonfakenews/wikimedia. CC BY SA 4.0

Zollner, 56, has been one of the best-known faces of Vatican-led reform efforts on child protection for years — he is widely regarded among Church leaders as an honest broker, a candid voice with a singular commitment to initiating and implementing reform efforts. 

The priest’s resignation from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors (PCPM) points to the problems plaguing the Vatican’s efforts to respond decisively to the clerical sexual abuse problems, which came to the fore after the scandals of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick in 2018. 

It also indicates the crumbling credibility of Pope Francis’s reform efforts. 

But for all the strong language of Zollner’s resignation statement, it seems unlikely to prompt widespread soul-searching, or a different path forward for the Vatican.

The rollout of Zollner’s March 29 resignation can easily be taken as an illustration of the circumstances which led him to quit.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley, president of the papal commission, released a statement early Wednesday afternoon in Rome, announcing that Zollner “has asked to be relieved of his duties as a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.”

O’Malley suggested that Zollner was too busy to serve on the commission.

“Fr. Hans told me that he came to this decision after reflection on his recent appointment as consultant for Safeguarding to the Diocese of Rome,” the cardinal wrote. 

“In light of this and all his other responsibilities, he has asked to be excused from his place” on the PCPM, O’Malley added.

Three hours later, Zollner released his own statement, which rejected directly the implication that his resignation was a matter of scheduling.

The priest said that a raft of “structural and practical issues” had “led me to disassociate myself” from the commission. In other words, Zollner seemed to say, he’d had it with problems in the central committee for safe environment reform.

Zollner listed several such issues:

The priest said he was “increasingly concerned” with the commission’s approach to safeguarding, “particularly in the areas of responsibility, compliance, accountability, and transparency.”

He lamented a “lack of clarity” on the selection of commission members, an “inadequate” approach to financial accountability,” and “insufficient information and vague communication with members on how particular decisions were taken.”

Zollner also critiqued an apparently difficult merger of the PCPM into the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, ordered by Pope Francis in 2022. 

“I am unaware of any regulations that govern the relationship between the commission and the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith,” the priest wrote, indicating that the formal nature of the merger has yet to be clarified and that no one, as yet, understood who was responsible for what, or to whom.

Each of those issues, Zollner said, “need to be urgently addressed,” and “have made it impossible for me to continue further” on the papal commission.

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Of course, the problems described by Zollner are not unique to the PCPM; they are similar to complaints raised about other departments of the Roman curia. 

But for Zollner, they represent a particular problem for the pope’s safeguarding office, because governing and financial transparency, openness in decision-making, and clear processes and structures are key for the kind of ecclesiastical reform that might address clerical sexual abuse and cover-up.

And most people looking for evidence of Zollner’s claim would look no further than the process of his resignation — before he released a blistering statement, a kind of “nuclear option” in ecclesiastical circles, the commission’s own leadership suggested the priest had left because he was too busy.

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While not necessarily related, 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 actually being accomplished.

It also comes amid the ongoing scandal centered 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.

Amid those scandals, along with several others involving abuse or cover-up by senior clerics in the U.S., Latin America, and Europe, Zollner has generally been expected to serve as the face of a Vatican earnestly working to implement a serious reform agenda.

In fact, 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 The Pillar pressed on that notion — with Zollner remaining dutifully silent — did Bode’s spokesman eventually admit that Zollner had not supported Bode’s plan.

The priest, in short, has shouldered a lot inside the ecclesiastical structure for the sake of working toward reform — even while seeing numerous cases mishandled, both by the Vatican  and by his own religious order.

At the same time, some Italian abuse advocates say that Zollner has been sidelined from decision-making in recent years.

All of that would have been a growing burden for anyone. And indeed, some Vatican sources close to the PCPM say that Zollner has carried a heavy load in ecclesiastical service for years, and has grown increasingly discouraged about the prospect of actually effective results.

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In recent weeks, Zollner has been candid about his sense of deficiencies in the pope’s reform policies. 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. 

The priest 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.

Zollner did not pull any punches with Awake Milwaukee this month, or in his statement on Wednesday, for that matter. 

While the priest’s resignation likely indicates both professional and personal frustration, it should be noted that Zollner’s judgment has been, until this point, widely celebrated by churchmen leading reform efforts. That should suggest that his criticisms will also merit real consideration.

Of course, close and expert observers have complained for years about the wheels falling off the Vatican’s reform efforts — or complained that there were no wheels there to begin with. 

That Fr. Hans Zollner aligned himself to that perspective — in dramatic fashion — should lend it credibility, in many circles. 

And that he did so after the PCPM released a “no problems here” press release about Zollner should neatly illustrate the problem.

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

That seems unlikely.

If reform was possible, it seems unlikely Zollner would have quit in the first place. The priest likely knows he’ll exercise far less influence outside the commission than inside it — which means his resignation probably came after a concerted effort to gain allies, or an audience, for his view on what he needs to be done.

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, it’s probable that Cardinal O’Malley or some other official will say in the days to come that Zollner’s criticisms merit reflection and careful consideration. But they’ll not likely get a wholesale endorsement — because recognizing the problems of the PCPM would probably involve recognizing similar problems in Vos estis itself, and the broader praxis of abuse reform.

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 center of his plan is operating with the deficiencies Zollner indicates. 

In recent interviews and in 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.”

Zollner seems not to be holding his breath on that promise. 

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