Protecting Children in the Church

Hans Zollner SJ

 Hans Zollner SJ / April 2017, Vol. 1 no. 3 / Published Date:12 April 2017/Last Updated Date:8 February 2021

Free Article

The issue of sexual abuse of minors committed by clergy is constantly returning to the forefront of media attention.

Recently, through various news outlets and publications, this focus has been particularly sustained in Italy, France and Argentina.

There is no doubt that the protection of children and youth against sexual violence remains a central problem in the Church, and in society. Catholics who closely identify with the Church and its mission remain deeply disturbed by this.

La Civilta Cattolica

This concern was expressed once again by the pope on at least two recent occasions: in the conversation with superiors general of male religious orders,[1] and then again, in the preface, which he wrote himself, of a book whose author is a victim of abuse.[2] There, Pope Francis writes:

“How can a priest, in the service of Christ and his Church, come to cause such evil? How can one who has consecrated his life to leading the little ones to God, end up instead devouring them in what I have called ‘a diabolical sacrifice’ which destroys both the victims and the life of the Church? Some victims take their own lives, in the end. These deaths weigh on my heart, on my conscience, and on that of the whole Church. To their families I offer my sentiments of love and sorrow, and I humbly ask forgiveness. It is an absolute monstrosity, a horrendous sin, radically contrary to everything that Christ teaches us.”[3]

Faced with this horror, complaining is understandable, but the words of the pope call for firm conclusions and commensurate action.

In the coming months and years, more news of this sort will continue to spread – and there will be many such cases, especially if we consider the situation throughout the world. There will be more terrible testimonies of the deliberate or tolerated failures of fundamental pastoral care, both human and Christian. But these will also serve as reminders that demand resolute vigilance.

Only when an abscess is cut open and drained can the healing process begin. Without doubt, this process has started very late, after decades, and has not progressed everywhere at the same speed. This is explained somewhat by the fact that the Catholic Church, with its global network of institutions, presents a mix of attitudes and methods adopted to uncover and prevent the sexual abuse of minors.

The universal commitment of the Church to prevent sexual abuse has encountered very different cultural situations. Regarding this challenge, it need only be noted that the Catholic Church has about 1.3 billion followers spread throughout 200 countries, and cannot be construed as a monolithic unit. For example, among these Catholic structures, there are more than 220,000 schools operating in multiple economic, legal, and cultural contexts.

The same applies to about 1450 Catholic universities, hundreds of thousands of kindergartens, nursery schools, centers for care of the disabled and for social assistance, hospitals, shelters, and so on.

In some countries – for example, Australia, Ireland, Germany, Austria – in reaction to the scandals, the Church has introduced very detailed preventative measures and provides professional training and regulations for employees at every level and in every sector.

But there is also a strong passive resistance which in various local churches moves in the opposite direction with respect to the commitment to discover, intervene in, and prevent sexual abuse. Already from this simple fact, you can see that – contrary to what is perceived and portrayed from the outside – the Catholic Church, at least in this regard, does not have hierarchically structured guidelines or a supervisory structure that would be normal in public administration or in the economic sector.

 Pontifical initiatives

However, given what has become clear in the universal Church, the balance has finally shifted slowly but firmly in the right direction.

Church leaders at the highest levels, above all Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, have asked us to face seriously the issue of sexual abuse of minors committed by clergy. Even before becoming pope, the then-Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had made a number of significant decisions to tackle cases of abuse.

The statute of limitations was extended, in order to protect victims, and abuse against people with mental disabilities likewise came to be considered a crime.

Pope Francis has continued and intensified the line of his predecessor, especially with the establishment of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors (Pontificia Commissio pro Tutela Minorum). He created, at the level of the universal Church, the structural and material conditions needed to accelerate, with consistency and efficiency, the protection of children throughout the Catholic Church, establishing the commission as a consultative body on this issue.

The pope has welcomed some proposals of the commission, such as, for example, holding a day of prayer for those who have been victims of abuse, and  instituting criminal proceedings against those bishops and religious superiors who silenced or ignored abuse. We have started down the right path, but it is a long and demanding one.

Back in 2011, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had urged all episcopal conferences to draw up Guidelines for Cases of Sexual Abuse. Large religious orders have also engaged in this task. They must explain, among other things, what is done in individual countries to prevent abuse, how to act with regard to those who have suffered abuse, what legal action to take against the culprits, and what needs to change in priestly formation to prevent abuse.

We continue to ask why there are no uniform guidelines for the whole Church. It should be said in this regard, first of all, that the juridical norms apply, of course, throughout the Catholic Church.

This includes the procedures which each bishop must follow in every part of the world in the same way. This starts with a preliminary investigation, and, if it is concluded that the accusations are founded, the case must be submitted to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, where it is decided at which level the next steps are to be taken. 

Naturally, it would be desirable that these criminal trials take place in the territory of origin. This would facilitate a faster and more transparent process.

But this is prevented by the fact that in few local Churches are there canonists in sufficient numbers and properly trained, with a specialization in penal law, and therefore the process cannot be carried out by those with the required expertise. Also worth considering is that the centralization of processes can help prevent the possibility of cover-up by local superiors.

 Differing cultural situations

Aside from what for better or worse is the same for all for the universal Church, it should be reiterated that in certain countries we find very different starting situations with regard to cultural views on abuse and its prevention. This includes how sexuality, emotions, and relationships are lived to how they are spoken of or even if they are talked about.

The Catholic Church is present in traditionally Confucian countries such as South Korea, and in very conservative countries, as regards sexual relations, such as largely Hindu India. It is in thousands of African cultures, and among the indigenous peoples of the Andean countries.

The meeting of the Christian faith with these many faces of humanity is called inculturation. This influences the celebration of the liturgy and issues with which the Church engages more deeply, such as how to act – or not – towards the thorny issue of sexual abuse of minors committed by clergy.

Almost six years since the exhortation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, five of the world’s 112 episcopal conferences have not yet even established a project to develop their Guidelines for Cases of Sexual Abuse. These are predominately West African, francophone conferences.

Also in the realm of civil and criminal law we find different ways of dealing with cases of abuse by state institutions, and this is known to influence the course of action of the Church. An issue frequently debated – and sometimes it happens that in the same country there are different federal states with different norms – is the level of obligation for the individual citizen or for certain professionals to report cases of abuse to the proper authorities.

It ranges from the unconditional obligation for those who suspect abuse to report to the police, to intermediate positions – countries where doctors or psychologists can report to the police or report to governmental social services, who may in turn decide whether to report to the police – to states in which there are no specified norms. We must add that in many countries, even when the norms are fixed and defined on paper, they are not considered really binding.

In large parts of Africa and Asia, and to some degree Latin America, and parts of Eastern Europe, the sexual abuse of children is still not perceived as an urgent and recurrent problem. This is surprising, because all the statistics clearly show that the sexual abuse of minors is not a rare phenomenon.

The figures are, in fact, quite high: 10-15% of boys and 15-20% of girls under the age of 18 are exposed to violence or sexual assault.

The most common environment, though also most hidden, is the occurrence of abuse within the family; it raises many urgent questions about how we can help families to live well together, and to foster healthy relationships.

In most Southern countries of the world, those who hold positions of responsibility must take the lead in recognizing the problem. In some areas, the idea persists that the sexual abuse of children by clergy is a problem only of the decadent liberal countries of the West.

Let us take a concrete example: the question of prevention and the protection of children from the perspective of the bishops of the Philippines, and of religious superiors in Rwanda.

Listening to them, one learns that these bishops and provincial superiors place the discourse on sexual abuse of children and young people in a different and broader context than is done in richer countries. In poor countries, children and youth suffer brutal treatment of many kinds: those related to war, polluted water, hunger, lack of security, and exploitation of their labor beyond exhaustion.

In a world of such violence, suffering sexual assault is a crime not much different than others. Rather, sexual abuse is considered apart of a broader suffering of children and youth.

If, therefore, these countries have to establish bodies, both ecclesial and secular, to fight against sexual violence, it must be done in a broader context, aimed at guaranteeing all the rights of childhood. Otherwise you run the risk that the insistence on fighting against sexual abuse be dismissed as Western ideology, which disregards the real-life experience of these countries, often inhumane, and arises from the typically Western neurosis around sexuality. 

Increase awareness and commitment to prevention

Despite this, it is possible to say that consciousness of the issue has been raised publicly in the Church, in the center and in the peripheries (to take an expression used by the pope).

In Fiji, as in Malawi, in Mexico as in Poland, we now speak openly about abuse in the Church (and at the same time in their respective societies) and its prevention. Many places are now working seriously to deal with cases of abuse, and to realize, or at least to tend toward, prevention. And this prevention is effective, as statistics show. In the United States, where they have taken more severe measures towards prevention than elsewhere, there have been few complaints of abuse committed in recent years.

In Germany and Austria, the Catholic Church has issued detailed guidelines for prevention in every diocese, in religious orders, schools, social service centers for the youth, and has put in place corresponding standards for formation and training.

The Church here is setting the standard, and this is recognized also by secular institutions. But it would be dangerous to believe that the task is now completed and that therefore “from now on, everything is just fine.” The issue cannot be allowed to fade into the background.

First of all, we must continue to deal with cases of abuse in the Church, in society, and in families; it would be an illusion to believe that we can completely eradicate the evil that is done to children only with preventative measures. Second, ongoing commitment to this is a natural consequence of the way Jesus behaved with children. This alone should urge those who have responsibility at all levels to do everything possible to protect children. 

Without a doubt, over the past five years sensitivity among Church authorities to this issue has increased, as has the willingness to act.

But there is not yet everywhere a standing commitment to prioritize the protection of children and young people from sexual abuse, and to manifest this commitment with concrete and effective measures. And this is due to various reasons, one of which may be socio-cultural. The ability to collaborate on the issue of prevention with state institutions or NGOs depends on the position that the Church occupies in each country.

In a predominantly Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist country, there may or may not be cooperation depending on the degree of tolerance and good will extended by the competent authorities. A case study:

In a particular country where Christians make up a small minority and are persecuted by extremists of all kinds, the religious sister who directed an orphanage discovered that a teacher had  sexually abused some of the girls. On the basis of her own conscience, bearing in mind the laws of her own country, and considering the obligations toward European sponsors, she wanted and needed to denounce this abuse.

However, she did not know how the police would react: the teacher was the mayor’s son and both belonged to the dominant religion. The nun thought the police might not react at all, or that any prosecution would have eventually led to the closing down of the orphanage or that the negative publicity would trigger the persecution of Christians under the pretext: “How could the Christians permit this in their institutions?”

 The Centre for Child Protection at the Gregorian University

Specific prevention programs tend not only to prevent sexual crimes, but also, and above all, make broadly known the conditions, contributing factors, and consequences of sexual abuse, and urge all to act accordingly. In this field, the Church, with its educational, academic, charitable, and pastoral institutions could exercise leadership on a global scale, not only for other religious communities, but for all possible types of bodies and governments, as it does already today in some countries, especially in the global South.

The Centre for Child Protection (CCP) – which carries out its mission at the Pontifical Gregorian University thanks to the generous support of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, and the missio of the Aachen diocesan Kindermissionswerk (the child welfare organization of the Catholic Church in Germany) – is dedicated to the prevention of the abuse of minors.[4]

The CCP promotes the work of prevention, primarily in those countries where, so far, little has been done. It also forms people to work for this purpose locally; it offers help for the protection of children and young people to those men and women working in the ecclesial context in parishes, schools, and kindergartens.

How can I tell if a child suffers or has suffered abuse? What can I do to help? What can I do to find out who is guilty? What can I do to create a safe space for children and for young people in a parish or a Catholic school? Combatting sexual abuse is a Herculean task, which requires the collaboration of nearly everyone in the Church and in society.

It is a matter of changing how we see and how we act, which, as we know, happens only slowly. This is why the CCP is dedicated to formation: with teaching and training (also available in an e-learning platform, with a certificate in Safeguarding of Minors), research, and the organization of conferences.

The CCP does all this in close collaboration with the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, especially in the formation of candidates for priesthood and in the formation of leaders in the Church. The CCP intends to offer a lasting impetus to prevention work in the Church, at the universal level, and as a platform for the exchange of ideas and best practices in the prevention of abuse, which extends to all countries and continents. 

The fight against sexual abuse will endure for a long time, and we have to say goodbye to the illusion that the mere introduction of rules or guidelines is a complete solution. It involves a radical conversion, of adopting the attitude that the commitment to prevention and the decision to bring justice to the victims of abuse will not be set aside when the public attention to the crisis fades.

The message of the God of Jesus Christ is the source and strength for this activity, and so reflection continues on the core of the gospel. For God loves above all the small and the vulnerable: “Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” (Mk 10:14, Mt 19:14, Lk 18:16).


[1].Pope Francis, “Take the Gospel without Tranquilizers: A Conversation with the Superiors General”, in Civ. Catt. 0117, 8-17.

[2]cfr. Daniel Pittet, La perdono, padre, Milan, Piemme, 2017.

[3].The text was reproduced by the popular Italian newspaper La Repubblica under the title “Pedophilia, the pope’s pain: How can a priest cause so much evil?” February 13, 2017. The pope had met Daniel Pittet, author of the book, at the Vatican in 2015, on the occasion of the Year of Consecrated Life. “I could not imagine that this man, so passionate and enthusiastic about Christ, had been the victim of abuse by a priest. And yet,” continues the pope, “that’s what he told me, and his suffering moved me deeply. I saw once again the tremendous damage caused by sexual abuse, and the long and painful journey that awaits the victims. I am happy that others can read his testimony today and discover how far evil can enter into the heart of a servant of the Church.” Daniel chose to meet his tormentor after forty-four years and has reached out: “The wounded child is now,” the pope continues, “a man standing – fragile, but standing. I’m very impressed by his words: ‘Most people fail to understand that I do not hate. I have forgiven him and I built my life on that forgiveness.’ Thank you, Daniel, because this testimony will break down the wall of silence that stifled scandals and suffering, and shed light on a terrible blind spot in the life of the Church. His words open the way to a just healing and grace of reconciliation, and also help pedophiles to become aware of the terrible consequences of their actions.”


[4].For more information on the CCP, see