German abuse report 'shocking' and not the end, Church expert says

German abuse report ‘shocking’ and not the end, Church expert says

German abuse report ‘shocking’ and not the end, Church expert says

Jesuit Father Hans Zollner talks during an interview with the Associated Press in Rome, Monday, Sept. 12, 2016. (Credit: Gregorio Borgia/AP.)

Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, a leading anti-abuse expert and a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, called a report documenting hundreds of cases of physical and sexual abuse at a German boys' choir "shocking," and warned that as the taboo lifts in other parts of the world, similar accounts are likely to keep emerging.

ROME – A recent German report documenting hundreds of cases of physical and sexual abuse at a famed boys choir in Regensburg, led for part of the seventy-year span covered in the report by Pope Benedict XVI’s brother, was “shocking,” according to one of the Church’s leading experts on child abuse – and what’s worse, he warns, the story hardly ends there.

“I’m sad to say, but from all I see on other continents, I’m quite sure we are going to encounter more cases like this. I [especially] anticipate it in other parts of the world where this issue has not been talked about, either in the Church or in society at large,” said German Jesuit Father Hans Zollner.

“This topic is starting to surface now in countries like India, where up until five years ago one heard nothing about this.  Yet today the topic is openly discussed  in the media again and again, both regarding [cases] in the Church and in society at large,” he said.

Zollner runs the Center for Child Protection at Rome’s Jesuit-sponsored Gregorian University, and is also a member of Pope Francis’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

At the same time, Zollner, himself a native of Regensburg, applauded the “courage” of the local bishop for commissioning the report and facing up to the ugly truths it contains. He insisted the climate in the Church is changing, with a more widespread awareness of the need to acknowledge and fight abuse.

“I certainly see, in the last three and four years, a steady growth of willingness to talk about these issues, of preparedness to take them on, the courage of people who need to be brave, Church leaders of all kinds. I perceive a growing attitude of taking it on in an upfront way, not avoiding it,” he said.

Zollner pointed to recent meetings he led in Myanmar and Singapore on child protection, the kind of thing which, he said, would have been “unthinkable” not so long ago. In some parts of the world, he said, the Church is now a recognized pacesetter on anti-abuse efforts.

“In [my country], Germany, the independent commissioner of the government on abuse prevention has acknowledged publicly that in the field of safeguarding minors, the Catholic Church is a leader and that other institutions – e.g. sports associations- are far behind,” he said.

Zollner spoke to Crux July 22 in an exclusive interview in Rome.

On other fronts, Zollner said:

  • Different parts of the world are in very different places when it comes to an awareness of what places children at risk of abuse. In Myanmar, he said, “the sisters, priests, seminarians and bishops spoke of a culture of physical violence in schools and boarding schools all over the place: Public schools, church schools, in Buddhist monasteries, and so you see that our standard of what’s acceptable and called for in education, even in this day and age, July 2017, is not the same around the globe.”
  • Even in the developed world, he said, there are gaps in the Church’s response, offering the example of a priest accused of abuse recently in a European nation. “The diocese issued a statement that is completely the opposite of what we are working for. The first sentence still is, “We are defending the rights of the priests,” and in the end, yes, there are some lines about harm done to the victim. You can clearly see that this is defensive, and it not only does not take into account the harm that was done to the alleged victim, it also does not really own up the responsibility of the Church,” he said.
  • As the original mandate for the Pontifical Commission for Minors expires, Zollner called for it to be extended. “Of course, it should continue,” he said. “The main message was, and is, that dealing with abuse cases and committing to safeguarding has primary importance for the pope and for the Holy See.”

The following are excerpts from Crux’s conversation with Zollner.

A report this week documented the extent of what happened in Regensburg, Germany, in the city’s famed boys choir. You’re from that city. How did you receive the news of the report, how did you take it?

Of course, I was shocked and I was dismayed about the extent of it, about the sheer number of students who had been abused over several decades. The report covers a time span of 70 years, so what is also shocking is how long it could go on. I was prepared, in some ways, because for a number of months we have known that this report was coming.

What I had heard over the last few months, for maybe half a year or so, [was that] the report would be devastating, and it is. It’s really terrible, horrific, and certainly overwhelming to deal with when you think about each and every single person who was involved. These were young human beings, and many lives have been gravely harmed and in some cases destroyed.

We have the numbers, 547 children in one way or the other abused, 67 of them sexually…

Yes. Some people make a clear distinction between physical and sexual abuse. Yet, sexual violence includes both elements, wherein physical violence is acted out sexually, and physical violence sometimes includes sexual or eroticized elements.

The large majority of cases reported, almost 500, referred to physical violence on a scale and level that is incredibly brutal, with sadistic and clearly pathological elements.

How important was it that the diocese itself requested this report?

The most important fact is that the victims and survivors get some sense of justice, a good number of them have already expressed that they found an element of this justice in the sheer publication of the report.

The second most important fact in all this, is that it was the diocese that commissioned an independent lawyer who could go through the archives, see people, interview everybody who was concerned, etc. It was the diocese and the bishop himself, who took this concern to heart and pushed for this action, and I really think one can appreciate the courage he showed by facing up to the evil that has been done by nine priests and about 40 lay employees in the three boarding houses for the two primary schools and the grammar school.

You travel the world trying to raise awareness about the need to protect children from every form of abuse, not only clerical sexual abuse. First of all, do you think we’re going to encounter other cases as tragic as this one?

I’m sad to say, but from all I see on other continents, I’m quite sure we are going to encounter more cases like this. I [especially] anticipate it in other parts of the world where this issue has not been talked about, either in the Church or in society at large. This topic is starting to surface now in countries like India, where up until five years ago one heard nothing about this.  Yet today the topic is openly discussed  in the media again and again, both regarding [cases] in the Church and in society at large.

This, over time, will bring to light other such sad stories. But it’s not the story that is sad, it’s the lives of those people whose story is hurt by this, and who’ve been harmed in terrible and horrific ways, some for life.

Do you see in most Church leaders a commitment like that of the Bishop of Regensburg, in the sense that if something like this were to surface in their dioceses, they would be willing to go through the process of giving survivors the voice they deserve?

I certainly see, in the last three and four years, a steady growth of willingness to talk about these issues, of preparedness to take them on, the courage of people who need to be brave, Church leaders of all kinds. I perceive a growing attitude of taking it on in an upfront way, not avoiding it.

I’ve just come back from Myanmar and Singapore. In Myanmar, it was certainly the first time there was a conference of any kind on this issue, not just in the Catholic Church. The Church comprises only 1.5 percent of the entire population there. Unfortunately, in many Asian societies, abuse of minors and of women is widespread, and much more violent physical abuse than we think. The Cardinal of Rangoon [Charles Maung Bo] and the four bishops who attended the three-day workshop, and 150 priests and religious were sitting there three days and really taking it in. I found a very open atmosphere of appreciation of the seriousness of the topic and a willingness to engage it further.

The last day, we had them break out into working groups and talk about their experiences, and – that’s an important fact that we have to take into account, especially when we talk about Regensburg –  the sisters, priests, seminarians and bishops spoke of a culture of physical violence in schools and boarding schools all over the place: Public schools, church schools, in Buddhist monasteries, and so you see that our standard of what’s acceptable and called for in education, even in this day and age, July 2017, is not the same around the globe.

But it is significant that we had this three-day workshop. Afterwards I went on to meet the Jesuit provincials of East Asia and the Pacific in Singapore, and they were also there for three days on the same topic, i.e. intervention and prevention. We also invited a survivor of abuse who spoke to them. You could feel how important it was that this lady, who has suffered enormously and gone through hell, delivered her message: “Take on the crimes of the past, intervene now, commit to safeguarding.”

I see that in many areas of the Church, in many countries, there is enormous openness and willingness to change. But we also need to see that this is not the same in every place within the Church.

I just heard that in a European country, a few days ago, the case of a priest accused of having abused a minor has been lingering for a year. Now came the moment of the public allegation at the court, and the diocese issued a statement that is completely the opposite of what we are working for. The first sentence still is, “We are defending the rights of the priests,” and in the end, yes, there are some lines about harm done to the victim. You can clearly see that this is defensive, and it not only does not take into account the harm that was done to the alleged victim, it also does not really own up to the responsibility of the Church.

So, we still have a mixed picture. Over the last years I have repeatedly said that this is not going to go away. The abuse that has taken place in the past is with us, and we are going to discover a lot more in other countries. I have also said that the attitude within the Church is not going to change within a few months or years. Realistically speaking, this is a generational task: attitude and culture do not change magically in a short time.

I know it looks like we are not doing anything, and yet I see change happening. I have traveled now to almost 50 countries on all continents, and I go because there are people who are willing to talk about it and who invite me.

Last Thursday evening, from this room, I gave an online conference for the Pontifical University of Mexico, that had set up a study day on the protection of minors, and 430 people came! In November we were in the same hall for a three-day conference with Cardinal Sean O’Malley and Archbishop Charles Scicluna, and there were over 300 people, all bishops, vicar generals, provincials… leadership of the Church in Mexico and Central America. This would not have happened two years ago.

I am hopeful because we see that the seeds are growing. What we have planted, has started to grow. We will certainly have to wait for years so that, in a global perspective, we will see the fruits.

What’s the root of that change? Are we finally realizing just how bad this is? Is it the pope? Is it the shame the Church has been put through?

These all converge, I believe.

Certainly, Pope Benedict’s call for serious engagement, commitment in this area was an important start. Then Pope Francis established the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and has changed a number of legal provisions. And then there is all that the CCP, the Centre for Child Protection of our university, and others are offering in terms of education, training and research. This multiplies, it’s snowballing. From Mexico City’s Pontifical University, it spreads out to other places in Mexico and Latin America, the same is true for many other places in Africa and Asia. The students of our Diploma course in the Safeguarding of Minors from Kenya go back to Nairobi and organize a rally with 3,000 young people marching through the streets of Nairobi in favor of safeguarding of minors. [These were] things unheard of a few months and years ago.

Awareness is growing, and I think the combination of the aforementioned factors is important. I think that we have reached, at least to a certain degree, at a general level, a change of attitude. Again, this is not to say that it has changed completely and everywhere.

What is changing is the level of willingness to face up to it. Again, it’s not to say that some people are no longer avoiding talk about abuse or denying it. However, generally speaking, there is continuous insistence that the universal Church needs to fully commit to the “victims first” approach and to consistent safeguarding measures: this comes, for example, with Pope Francis’s letter to the bishops on the 28th of December 2016 as well as with the Ratio Fundamentalis – the new guidelines for seminarian and priest formation, issued on the 8th of December 2016, in which specific workshops, lessons and seminars on safeguarding are called for.

It’s a multifaceted approach, and now it bears the first fruits. I would also hope that it grew faster and more consistently. All in all, if we talk about the Catholic Church as a whole, we see much progress.

What can be done to help society acknowledge that going after the Church, or specific religious groups, is not dealing comprehensively with the issue, because there are still millions of victims and survivors out there who’ve never been heard, who never spoke out, because ‘no one cares about what my parents did’?

I always think that the Catholic Church needs to do whatever is within her possibilities. I repeat this also to bishops in India, Fiji, Ecuador, Malawi or Kenya, where the Church is key in the educational field, a leader in quality education. The standards that the Church sets in her schools, universities etc. is a model for others to follow. We need to make sure that, as far as it’s possible, our institutions are safe places for young people, and all people.

Having accomplished that, once we have set these standards, I am confident that sooner or later it will translate into a wider range of institutions. Other religions and denominations will have to face up to the fact that the Catholic Church in some of these countries has started to screen teachers and other educational employees, offer specific formation for them, and require them to sign codes of conduct and guidelines.

The media and the general public, at a certain point, will also acknowledge that in many parts of the world, the Church is the safest place in a particular country.

I find it more challenging to talk about abuse in the context of family, because these are cases that you cannot easily follow. These are always unique cases. You won’t reach every parent. But, ultimately, our schools and institutions should educate parents on what they can do in order not to overstep boundaries with their own children and the children of other people, [and] also help other adults so that they do not cross boundaries either.

I think this is a huge task for the Catholic Church, and this is my point when I talk to bishops and provincials: “Let us not understand abuse only as something that is weighing on us and on the Church, or as an attack. We need to own up to our own responsibility for something that has gone terribly wrong for too long a time, but we do not need to see it only as something where one must defend [themself] or make sure that the media reports the right things. Instead, we can do something in the service of young people, for their safety, and we can do something for the whole of the society. If, and only if, we own up to our own responsibility, and we help others to take up theirs.”

It can only be through this, if you wish, indirect way that the Church can help: By doing her own job well, and being imitated by others, as is the [case already] in some countries. In mine, Germany, the independent commissioner of the government on abuse prevention has acknowledged publicly that in the field of safeguarding minors, the Catholic Church is a leader and that other institutions – e.g. sports associations- are far behind.

You are a member of Pope Francis’s commission for the protection of minors, and its three-year mandate is up this September. As a member, would you say that it has been useful?

Of course, it has been useful!

If Pope Francis were to call you tomorrow, would you tell him that it has to continue?

Of course, it should continue, yes. And the work that has been done in the six working groups should also continue. Many people don’t see what has been concretely achieved because it’s groundwork and sometimes in remote parts of the world – for example the hundreds of formation sessions with all kinds of leaders, Church personnel and the faithful, so people are not very aware of it.

But this, for me, is not the main result of the three and half years of the first mandate of the Commission. The main message was, and is, that dealing with abuse cases and committing to safeguarding has primary importance for the pope and for the Holy See. This commission was not there three and a half years ago, it will continue in one way or another, we will see what the decision taken by the pope ultimately will be, and who the members will be.

I certainly hope that the work that has been done in contact with survivors, in the formation of Church leaders, in the field of drafting guidelines, in spirituality and theology, in the area of legal procedures within the Church, and in the educational field in schools and families, will be intensified and will spread out more and more.

One of our goals as a ‘Catholic’, i.e. a global institution, is to reach out to all countries and continents. When we had the meeting in Singapore, we had invited a survivor from Europe who traveled all the way to Asia because it is almost impossible to find a survivor of abuse who will speak publicly on these issues.

It takes a lot of courage …

Yes, it takes a lot of courage, and people were not willing [to speak out publicly].

All this groundwork of workshops and formation courses for bishops’ conferences, religious leadership, Congregations, for school associations etc. needs to continue and to broaden and deepen.

I hope that in the future, the commission focuses on specific areas, especially in the area of raising awareness and educating people in institutions and families. All the legal procedures are in place, but what is lacking is that in many places we don’t have formed personnel to follow through. So, we need more people and better trained people. Again, much is happening here: a good number of doctoral dissertations are on their way or have come to a close, that refer to canonical provisions and the legal procedures in a specific country.

In the CCP, our Centre for Child Protection of the Gregorian University, we train personnel specialized in safeguarding. In June, we had a second class with 24 students which finished. All of them will work in high positions within the bishops’ conferences or dioceses or religious congregations in this field. Our students mostly come from Asia, Africa and Latin America where there is neither formed personnel nor knowledge and competence. Almost everywhere these graduates are now the experts in their countries.

We need to spread it out on the ground level and allow it to gain momentum. This is our effort with the CCP and all the educational initiatives that are on the way in our Global Alliance.

Does the Vatican need a few of those highly trained people?

Of course, we need persons within the Holy See’s offices. Over the last 16 months, Commission members have been giving workshops to personnel from different dicasteries as well as to the new bishops from around the world.

I hope that in every dicastery there will be trained personnel in this field, so they can do their own work and be in contact and work with the Commission.

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