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  • April 2023 : Vatican reproaches Croatian Archbishop the way he dealt with the abuse allegations

During the last twenty years, the media reported several sporadic cases of abuse within the Catholic Church in Croatia. Although the cases were treated as scandals by the media, the public stories were short-lived and did not cause any significant public debate or reaction from the public or the Church itself. However, the Croatian Bishops Conference (CBC), after an invitation from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2011, adopted guidelines for dealing with cases of sexual abuse in the Church (2013). In 2020, CBC established a Commission for the Protection of Minors and Vulnerable Persons. These actions were not a reaction to the cases mentioned, but rather were motivated "from above" since the Catholic Church in many other countries around Europe and the world has been subject to accusations of abuse.
However, the latest case to come to light is different in many respects. Namely, a priest from the Danube town of Sotin, Zlatko Rajčevac, was accused of abuse to Archbishop Hranić, Đakovo-Osijek diocese, by the mother of a young girl as early as 2016. After more than a year, at the end of 2017, Archbishop Hranić informed the State Attorney’s Office of the received report. Since they did not start an investigation nor bring an indictment against the priest, Archbishop Hranić informed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the report in late 2018. Finally, on 10January 2020, the State Attorney’s Office filed charges against the priest for abusing five children. Two months later, Archbishop Hranić retired the priest who died in May of the following year, 2021.
After media accusations that Hranić waited too long to report the case and did not remove the accused priest from the parish and his work with children (when he could have retired him earlier), the Archbishop held a press conference on 21 March 2023. At that conference, Archbishop Hranić rejected accusations of covering up the sexual abuse case and said that he had reported the case to the State prosecutor’s Office, but did not transfer the priest from Sotin because "he was already old and sick at the time", "he was not capable for such things anymore" and that "his whole world would collapse" if he was removed from the parish.
The public was taken aback by Hranić’s words which showed more empathy for the potential abuser than for the victim. The Apostolic Nuncio in Croatia also reacted after the press conference by issuing a statement on 1 April 2023. From a formal point of view, the Nunciature did not criticise the actions of Archbishop Hranić, who, according to the press release, acted in accordance with the instructions regarding cases of abuse of minors by submitting a preliminary investigation to the competent Vatican dicastery. He was criticised for not not using his authority to remove the accused priest from his position until the facts were clarified and because "unfortunately, believing more in the self-defence of the pastor than in the report of the mother of one of the alleged victims, the Archbishop of Đakovo-Osijek did not show the necessary and recommended empathy towards the victims, which was also visible at the aforementioned press conference". After such a reprimand from the Vatican, Hranić issued a statement in which he apologized to "the victims of priest Rajčevac, their families, the parishioners of the Sotin parish, especially those who reported the case, as well as the entire Croatian public" for not removing the suspected priest from the parish during the investigation. Hranić covered himself in ashes saying that „unfortunately, it was only in the last few days, listening to the public testimony of a victim as well as the voice of the Church and the general public, examining myself before the crucified Lord, that I realised how big an omission and mistake I made in taking care of the priest, and by not seeing the suffering of the victims and the need for protection that they asked of me."
After the case, the president of the CBC Commission for the Protection of Minors and Vulnerable Persons, Archbishop of Rijeka Mate Uzinić, spoke about protecting minors and vulnerable persons in the Church. He referred to several manuals on how to handle reports of abuse available to clergy and other pastoral workers, and to educational workshops conducted in certain Croatian dioceses. Bishop Uzinić warned that contacts for reporting abuse should be more accessible in some dioceses. There is an apparent disparity in the approach to the problem of abuse among dioceses, and Uzinić points out that it is necessary to strengthen capacities in those where protection services have been partially introduced or implemented, to establish and develop protection services where they are needed, and to provide the necessary resources to the parts of the Church that currently do not have the appropriate level of service required by Church norms. Another important topic that Archbishop Uzinić touched on is the need to establish a single office for the protection of minors for the entire CBC, since the current network of offices and commissions is not as functional as it should be. This is due to the lack of available experts and insufficient education of the clergy. A new office would include employed professionals and a network of professional associates who would help in dealing with future cases, as well as take part in the education of the clergy to make the victim truly the most important person at all stages of the process and after. Commenting on the Sotin case, Bishop. Uzinić suggested that Archbishop Hranić’s apology should be recognized and appreciated, adding that this case was more about errors in public relations than procedures.
The Sotin case is interesting in the Croatian context because, on the one hand, it was the first time Vatican Nuncio in Croatia reacted to the Archbishop’s actions and called him out publicly. As expected, the Nuncio followed the position of Pope Francis, who has a harsh attitude towards all abuse offences within the Church. The Pope demands zero tolerance for the abusers from his bishops and the church hierarchy, and consider all the allegations with the utmost seriousness. On the other hand, cases such as this one further undermine the citizens’ trust in the Church in Croatia. European Value Study showed that trust in the Church dropped from 62.8% in 1999 to only 38.4% in 2017. Simultaneously, the share of those without confidence in the Church increased from 5.1% in 1999. to 20.8% in 2018. Through this case, he Church in Croatia presented itself as a somewhat more closed off and distanced institution than Pope Francis wants it to be, and that tries to protect itself more than the victims. The fact that the Vatican reacted is nevertheless a warning to the Croatian bishops that in possible future similar situations, they must take a different approach. The CBC Commission for the Protection of Minors and Vulnerable Persons took a step in this direction, on behalf of which Archbishop Uzinić expressed regret for all the previous cases that were not managed adequately, mainly due to ignorance and a naive approach of this problem. He added that the responsibility for omission should be addressed in all future cases, even if there is no legal or moral guilt.

Sources :
 Informativna katolička agencija (Catholic News Agency)
 Nikodem, K., Zrinščak, S. (2019) Between Distanced Church Religiosity and Intensive Personal Religiosity : Religious Changes in Croatian Society from 1999 to 2018. Društvena istraživanja 28(3) : 371-390 (in Croatian).

D 9 mai 2023    ANikolina Hazdovac Bajić

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