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Church’s legal procedures for abuse cases need changing

ROME (CNS): Even though the Catholic Church has all the necessary norms and laws in place to safeguard minors from abuse by clergy, the problem continues to be a lack in understanding or caring about those rules and guidelines and applying them effectively, said one Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, head of the Pontifical Gregorian University’s Center for Child Protection.
What must change are Church procedures for handling accusations of abuse, he said.
At a ceremony awarding 18 people—religious and laity—diplomas for completing a specialisation course in safeguarding minors on February 9, Father Zollner said that the legal process “must be more transparent and more transparent for everyone” including the victims, the accused and his or her superiors,. 
He noted that victims receive no information during the process and the accused are left “in limbo” for what may be five years or more not knowing if they will be sentenced or even found guilty. Not even the bishop or religious superior of the accused receives information about what’s happening.
So while the Church’s definitions of what constitutes a crime and suggested sentences are clear, Father Zollner said that what needs addressing is how to beef up the Church’s legal system so that it can “actually bring justice to everyone” and truly protect minors.
At the February 9 ceremony, Father Zollner, a theologian and psychologist who is also dean of the university’s institute of psychology, unveiled a new academic degree program in safeguarding that will begin in the autumn. 
The licentiate or master’s degree is meant for specialists from any field— theology, canon law, civil law, psychology, social services—to deepen their knowledge and practical skills in child protection.
Approved by the Congregation for Catholic Education, the degree also qualifies educators to teach in seminaries or other institutes where future generations of religious, priests and bishops are formed, he said.
Father Zollner said the idea is to equip people interested in the field of child protection with high-level, multidisciplinary qualifications, skills and drive to take safeguarding to a whole new level.
“In theory, we have all the instruments,” guidelines and norms in place, but they only “help us up to a certain point,” he said.
Major problems include applying what the Church mandates when it comes to drawing up and carrying out abuse policies, properly vetting and forming candidates for the priesthood and religious life, and holding bishops and major superiors accountable when they fail to act or cover up abuse, Father Zollner said.
Another problem is many Church leaders do not even know what Church law, much less their country’s civil law, says about the crime of abuse and reporting requirements, he added.
He said that, fundamentally, this comes down to a problem of “the heart” and “how to shape mentalities” so people are thorough and determined in building awareness and carrying out the law.
“Unfortunately, we are not machines” that just can be programmed differently, he said.
“There is a culture that must be changed, but this will not happen overnight,” Father Zollner said. “I’ve always said it will be a very long journey.”

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