Prevention, healing work better when faiths work together, says priest

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, one of the Vatican's top experts in the field of clergy sexual abuse, said during an interfaith symposium on the subject that working together will help eliminate sexual abuse in different faiths.

"I've seen that both faith leaders, and those who are involved as boots on the ground, are quite sensitive to the risks to youth and other vulnerable people," said Father Zollner, president of the Center for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

"Faith communities have a sense that they have to work hard to create safe spaces for people," he added, "This deep faith can actually work as a motivator to keep others safe."

It is necessary for people to be able to identify, report and help survivors, Father Zollner said. "We begin to understand better why it is better for faith communities to step up and understand the harm that has been done in their midst," he added.

"In some countries, the issue of abuse has only just begun to be addressed. In other countries the awareness has been ongoing for decades."

Father Zollner said, "Only when we work together can we truly have a lasting and vast impact," and he asked, "What can we do as a community of believers belonging to different faiths?"

He said, "This pandemic has shown us challenges that are much bigger than only one person, on faith, one country or one profession. ... We can each bring to the table specialized skills and profound perspectives."

"We need to focus on our shared communal values and build on that ... not just for us today, but for future generations," Father Zollner said. "This journey will be met with resistance and challenges, both within ourselves and our own faith communities well as within the world at large. We can steadily make our way toward a safer world, for us, for the children, with the work for a safer future."

Father Zollner was one of several speakers, each of whom gave separate prerecorded messages during an April 9 session, "The Importance of Faith Leaders in Preventing and Healing Child Sexual Abuse."

It was part of a symposium, "Faith and Flourishing: Strategies for Preventing and Healing Child Sexual Abuse," presented by the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University's Institute for Quantitative Social Science.

The symposium also was sponsored by numerous organizations, including the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America.

It has become too easy for congregations to dismiss the specter of clergy sexual abuse, said the Rev. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

He shared what he said are some typical responses in evangelical circles: "These are statistically such small numbers of cases." "This is something that happens in the outside world." "(It's) something in the Roman Catholic Church, or something in some other theological tribe than mine."

Some will "use a lot of culture-war rhetoric," he added, cautioning, "There is no theological statement or ecclesial structure that by themselves can rid a church of sexual abuse."

In truth, "any theological system can be weaponized. The question will sometimes be, the Catholic Church has a strong system of hierarchy. What do we see? We see sexual abuse crisis throughout the 20th century and 21st century," Rev. Moore said.

"However, many evangelical networks of churches are bottom-up, nonhierarchical," he said. "The system of accountability is within the church itself. It does not cure the problems."

Weaponization is not just the province of deniers but of predators. Rev. Moore said Jesus called them "thieves and robbers -- not (coming) through the gates but he says they're coming in through another way. ... He's referring to the ability to abuse trust."

"Christian theology and Christian piety can be weaponized by predators: 'Don't tell anyone about this because only God will understand what's going on here,'" Rev. Moore said. They act, he said, as "an anti-Christ that seeks to mirror some of the actions of Jesus but turns them to another end."

While "the blood of Christ can forgive any sin," he added, "that does not mean lack of accountability and it does not mean cover-ups."

If a church thinks only in terms of public relations -- "we want to keep this internal, because if we were talk about this publicly, it would cause people not to trust our church, or trust Christianity or trust Jesus" -- Rev. Moore said, "that is a complete contradiction to the first-century teaching of Jesus himself."

A church, Rev. Moore added, "is not to be a transactional arrangement. A church is not to be a business. A church is not to be a predatory network. A church exists to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ to represent the body of Christians and to protect those who are serving Christ."

Anindita Chatterjee Bhaumik, a clinical social worker in Boston and a Hindu, said in her faith tradition, "many times the concept of karma is often used to silence the victim: 'They must have done something wrong in one of their past lives to deserve this fate.' This prevents survivors from speaking up as they feel they are going to be ostracized, stigmatized by their community."

Shame and guilt are "very sticky emotions that riddle survivors for a very long period of time," Bhaumik said. "Their anger often turns insular, into destructive behaviors like addiction."

She added, "Education about clergy sexual abuse does not lead to clergy sexual abuse. It fact, it can prevent it."