ROME – Father Hans Zollner, an earnest 51-year-old Bavarian Jesuit psychologist and vice-rector at Rome’s prestigious Gregorian University, who’s considered perhaps Catholicism’s leading expert on sexual abuse and child protection, is, in almost every sense of the word, a man on a mission.
In the 21st century, we use that phrase to mean someone with a cause, and that’s certainly Zollner. He sees the protection of vulnerable people, especially children, as a core part of the Christian faith, and he’s determined to do everything in his power to promote and foster safe environments.
In the history of Zollner’s Jesuit order, “mission” also implies hitting the road, taking the Gospel to the four corners of the world, and that’s him as well. Over the past four years or so, he’s led approximately 600 training sessions in child protection for bishops, religious superiors, and Church institutions, in virtually every part of the world. When he spoke to Crux on March 28, he had just returned from a session with the French bishops in Lourdes, and he ticked off plans for the near future including stops in Kenya and in Papua New Guinea.
While he tries to go wherever he’s invited, Zollner says he gets about one-third more invitations than even someone with his inexhaustible energy and relentless commitment can possibly accept, so he hands those off to a growing network of like-minded colleagues and former students.
Zollner is, in other words, the other face of the Catholic Church when it comes to the sexual abuse scandals – the face not of dysfunction and denial, but of reform and hope.
Zollner directs the Centre for Child Protection, originally launched in Munich in 2012 in the wake of sexual abuse scandals in German Catholicism, and which moved to Rome as the center of the Catholic world in January 2015 in order to go truly global. He’s a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, a sounding board created by Pope Francis in 2014 to advise him on child protection policies. Since 2017, he’s also a consultor to the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy, putting him in a position to help shape the formation of future priests.
Today, he sees a “snowball effect” in the Church of awareness and interest about the need for strong child protection policies.
Zollner tells the story, for instance, of knocking on doors two years ago in the Czech Republic, trying to see officials of the country’s bishops’ conference and rectors of major seminaries, and being told politely to go away. Three months ago, on the other hand, he was invited to give major presentations to those groups, and “the whole church showed up.”
Zollner says the decision to relocate the Centre for Child Protection to the Eternal City has positioned it to respond to the explosion in concern.
“That has changed the whole perspective, and the sheer number of invitations,” Zollner told Crux, in an hour-long interview in his office at the Gregorian University.
“One of the major reasons why we moved here was because this is the center of the Catholic Church, and all bishops come through here periodically,” he said. “Almost all congregations and orders have houses here, mostly headquarters. Many have formation houses here.”
Zollner is, in many ways, ideally suited for the role of reformer-in-chief. He’s passionate, but at the same time calm and tremendously level-headed, and anything but naïve. He expresses deep skepticism about “magical, mysterious” solutions, and says he’s under no illusion “that this will all be resolved in five or ten years.”
Whenever Zollner addresses Church leaders – which, on average, how’s now doing roughly every three days, 12 months out of the year – he says he’s got three basic points he tries to drive home.
“First, listen to victims,” he said.
“I tell them that victims who know I’m there, not always from that country but sometimes, are praying for you in this very moment, because they know we are speaking now,” he said.
“I also always talk about some encounter of victims with the Church hierarchy. I very often refer to the Holy Father’s meeting with survivors of abuse in July 2014, where I was present as a translator for the two Germans. What happened during those meetings was very beautiful, and it changed their lives,” Zollner said.
“Put victims first and do whatever you can to do justice to them,” he said, summarizing his basic charge to bishops. “Invest your time, don’t run away, be open to that, because this is what they look for and what they deserve. It’s what may help them to go on in their lives and possibly to heal.”
Second, he said, he’s no longer pushing bishops to adopt strong anti-abuse guidelines, because by now most bishops’ conferences around the world have adopted such protocols. The issue instead, he said, is to persuade bishops to make those commitments stick.
“In the Anglo-Saxon and Germanic worlds, we believe that when you’ve done your paperwork, it’s over, things are settled,” he said. “This is not true for 90 percent of countries. When you have a written document, that’s just the start of something.”
“The question is, how do you flesh it out in real life, in day-to-day life, in your dioceses, or orders, or parishes, or schools and orphanages and hospitals?”
As a related matter, he said, he urges bishops and other Church leaders to prioritize pastoral work with families.
“Attending to families, helping them to grow into a healthy and sound life, is the best prevention work you can do,” Zollner said. “Families grow strong and self-confident young people who will defend their own rights, and healthy families are also the safest environments for children.”
Third, Zollner said, he urges bishops to invest resources in specific safeguarding measures, such as training in abuse prevention and detection, creating functioning complaint centers, doing background checks on personnel, and so on.
“We have seen in the U.S., in Australia, in Ireland, in Germany, and elsewhere, that with good safeguarding measures, you can reduce the number of transgressions and boundary violations, as well as abuse, very much,” he said.
At the same time, he said, bishops and other leaders have to understand that those safeguarding measures, while critically important, aren’t infallible.
“You will never be sure that nothing will happen anymore. This is an illusion, and I would say a dangerous one,” he said. “You still need to open your eyes and your ears, and your sensitivity.”
Zollner said his experience is that once people hear that challenge put in front of them, and are empowered about how to meet it, they respond.
“My impression is that they are quite receptive, and very often it’s a lack of knowledge and how to deal with this very uncomfortable topic, which deters people from engaging it,” he said.
“I always put out there that any kind of institution, especially a Church institution, has a huge responsibility, but also a huge possibility – I’d say a spiritual and pastoral obligation, but also an invitation – to do whatever can be done so that young people can be safe. What’s closer to the Gospel than that?” he said.
“This turns people around, I see it happening in those meetings,” Zollner said. “They open their eyes, and very often, from a quite distant and sometimes defensive attitude at the beginning, I generally encounter much interest and openness at the end.”
Despite the toll of the travel and the constant preparation for the next seminar, the next training session, the next briefing, Zollner says he can see himself doing this for some time to come.
“My father and God have equipped me with a fairly strong physical body,” he said. “I can stand travel, and also the changes of circumstances that come with it. In one trip, you can go from winter to summer, and also the lodging that’s provided can be very different.”
Jokingly, Zollner says that sometimes people counsel him to stay at home more and avoid the “fancy places” he finds on the road.
“I always invite anyone who says that to join me for a while,” he said. “The number of requests goes way down.”
In the end, however, it’s not just a robust constitution and a strong Teutonic work ethic – though he has both in spades – that imbues Zollner with his relentless spirit.
He knows he’s doing all this at a time when the Church’s, and the pope’s, response to the abuse crisis is once again drawing fire, especially Francis’s rhetoric in January accusing victims of a pedophile priest in Chile of “calumny” for accusing Bishop Juan Barros of a cover-up and demanding that they deliver proof. He says what drives him is the sense that whatever the analysis of such highly public controversies may be, more quietly, without fanfare, things are actually shifting in the Church.
“What motivates me are the responses,” he said.
“Many people are worried that nothing is moving, that again and again they hear about cases of abuse in the Church, most in the past but a few in the present,” he said. “But I see change happening. I think of all those countries where I get invitations now, that didn’t talk about this publicly even a year or two ago.”
“We need to be open, to be transparent, and that motivates me,” he said.
He said the other thing that still drives him forward is “the support of victims and survivors.”
“I’m in constant contact with a number of them, from different countries and language backgrounds,” he said. “All of them say, ‘Keep on going, we’re praying for you.’ Many of them have really impressed me with their wisdom, their sharing of their journey and their spirituality, and when they say they’re praying for me, that’s enormous and very important for me.”
Further, Zollner understands that the work of reform can’t just come down to him. A certification course at the Gregorian in child protection already has produced 60 graduates, many of whom are in “places where very little has been done until now,” such as Africa, Asia and Latin America.
He said there’s also already “a good number of applicants” for a new degree program at the Gregorian, which, to his knowledge, is “the very first university course worldwide, as a full-time two-year program, which will prepare experts, not only engaged in implementing [anti-abuse] guidelines but helping to develop, update and inculturate them.”
It remains to be seen whether the Catholic Church does actually finish the job of creating a real culture of prevention, accountability and transparency when it comes to sexual abuse. Most experts, including Zollner, say there are still substantial pockets of unfinished business, including clear procedures for dealing with cover-up charges against superiors, and also being able to impose the same discipline upon lay movements and other Catholic entities that today are in place for priests.
One thing, however, seems clear: If the Church does get there, it will be partly thanks to Hans Zollner and his sense of mission.
“We try to train people who will be the multipliers, who will train other people on the ground,” he said. “We see this happening. They’ll know how to take the next steps and where the open doors are, because when you find the open doors, everything is much easier.”
With that, this hard-charging reformer brought the interview to a close, because he was headed out the door for yet another trip — this one, however, back to his native Bavaria, where he’ll say Mass for family and friends. After Easter, Zollner then will do something almost unheard of — he’ll take four days off, before returning to the mission that both inspires and defines him.
After that, to invoke Willie Nelson, he just can’t wait to get on the road again.