Safeguarding expert: Guidelines are ‘in vain’ if not upheld by Church powers

Fr Hans Zollner Credit Rebecski CC 40 CNA Fr. Hans Zollner, S.J. | Rebecski CC 4.0

A safeguarding expert said that the Catholic Church could do more to take responsibility for the failures of the past, and to reform power structures which allow abuse and cover-ups to take place.

Fr. Hans Zollner, S.J., a psychologist, theologian, and leading expert on abuse prevention, told CNA April 30 that the Church’s safeguarding procedures would not be effective unless those in power shared the same goals.

“You can have the best guidelines, you can have the best-prepared people for that kind of work or for protection or safeguarding, [but] if the institution as such does not live up to the ideals that are expressed in the guidelines -- for example, if there are power structures that contradict what the guidelines for safeguarding say -- then the same guidelines are put up in vain,” he said.

Zollner, president of Rome’s Center for Child Protection (CCP), told CNA that the prevalence of cover-ups and other institutional failures was “one of the main reasons” why the center is being re-established as a full educational institution.

The CCP, founded in 2012, is located at the Pontifical Gregorian University. On Sept. 1, the CCP will become the Institute of Anthropology: Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care (IADC).

The priest and professor said the change would create an academic entity in its own right, with the ability to have its own faculty members and award degrees, such as a licentiate (similar to a master’s degree) and a doctorate. It will no longer be dependent on other universities to award degrees or lend professors.

“And equally important is that the name has changed,” he said, noting that the center could not continue to have only “child protection” in its name, “because the world and the Church have moved on from child protection only to other forms of abuse which need protection and safeguarding.”

He emphasized that the institute’s primary focus would still be the protection of children from sexual abuse within the institutions of the Catholic Church, but choosing anthropology as the basis of the program offered “the broadest possible scope.”

“We have seen over the years that sexual abuse, sexual violence, is a human problem,” he said.

Anthropology provides a good interdisciplinary basis “and it helps us also to understand the different dimensions that come in when we talk about abuse and also about sexual abuse,” he said, noting that “sexual abuse is not only about sexuality, there are other dynamics. For example, power dynamics, emotions, psychological conditions.”

He added that “we have seen over the years that there is some interaction between the personality of people who abuse and those who cover up, and the institutions they represent.”

Zollner also said that the institute wanted “to learn from victims of abuse, so that we are helped to understand how they experienced the abuse, and how, in hindsight, they also decipher the reality of the institutions in which they have been abused and what structures, what policies, what actions or inactions of those institutions brought about the possibility of abuse and its cover-up.”

The president of the Institute of Anthropology is expected to be appointed between late May and early June. Zollner said that he planned to be involved in the new project as a professor, “and for the rest, we need to see what happens.”

The institute’s English diploma and English licentiate programs are already filling up for the fall semester.

The priest said it was difficult to generalize about the state of child protection in the Church, since the situation in each country is so different. But he commented that the Church in most countries “does a lot and is really forward in prevention and safeguarding work.”

Where it is most difficult to make progress is in countries that do not have the juridical systems in place to properly investigate and prosecute crimes of sexual abuse, he explained.

But in some areas, the expert said, the Church has a lot of room to improve.

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“The Church unfortunately has lagged behind in really owning its responsibility for the crimes of the past,” he observed. “And there we really need to accept this responsibility and to own it, because otherwise all the efforts for safeguarding will be jeopardized.”

He said that the Institute of Anthropology’s educational and research program “is not something that is supposed to immediately change everything in every country in this world.” But he said that “any kind of education aims at preparing people who then take responsibility and grow into professional roles and do what they’re supposed to do in the field over time.”

“Our effort has been since the beginning -- almost 10 years ago, the beginning of the CCP -- to help the local churches and the religious congregations to learn that [safeguarding] is part and parcel of the Church’s mission and that it is not something that you can sort of have or don’t have. It is something essential for the mission,” he said.

Zollner added that “more and more people in the Church, especially from the bottom up, understand that you cannot deny the reality of the abuse that has happened, and that we need to invest consistently in safeguarding, because the Church is supposed to be the Church of Jesus Christ, who identifies with the most vulnerable ones: the poor and the sick and also those who have been abused or are in danger of being abused.”

The Catholic Church does a lot of good work with migrants and with the poor and homeless, he said, “and I don’t see the same engagement also on a natural, normal, and -- let’s say -- emotionally engaged level with the abused and with those we need to protect.”

“And this is something we aim at, a change of mentality,” he said.

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