Top expert fears abuse of minors within families has increased during lockdown

Top expert fears abuse of minors within families has increased during lockdown

Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, president of the Centre for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, prays at the start of the third day of the meeting on the protection of minors in the Church at the Vatican Feb. 23, 2019. (Credit: Paul Haring/CNS.)

Father Hans Zollner, arguably one of the most prominent Church officials working on abuse prevention, says he understands the frustration some victims feel upon not seeing “immediate impact” from Rome on their cases, while at the same time underlining that “substantial change” has been made.

ROSARIO, Argentina – Father Hans Zollner, arguably one of the most prominent Church officials working on abuse prevention, says he understands the frustration some victims feel upon not seeing “immediate impact” from Rome on their cases, while at the same time underlining that “substantial change” has been made.

“I can understand that people don’t see the immediate impact if they have specific cases or points that they would like to see changed. The responsibility for all this doesn’t lie only in Rome, it’s very often the local level where things aren’t carried out,” said the German Jesuit. “How much that applies to the McCarrick report, I cannot say since I am not involved in it at all.”

The McCarrick report refers to a long-promised investigation into former American cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was removed from the priesthood by Pope Francis after accusations that he abused minors and seminarians throughout his career.

Zollner, the director of the Center for Child Protection of Rome’s Gregorian University and a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, spoke with Crux on Sept. 23 about the commission’s latest meeting, that saw most participants attending “virtually” due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The priest told Crux that the mandatory lockdown imposed in many nations due to the pandemic possibly led to more abusive situations within the family context.

Though further studies are needed, the research so far gives the impression “and the indicators are pointing clearly in that direction: More abuse has happened in the family context during the pandemic, because children and vulnerable people were exposed to offenders in the family with very little, if any, possibility to run away or report.”

“If a person is behind your shoulder, how will you phone someone for help?” Zollner said. “Children couldn’t go to school, to sports or see their friends, and were instead always confined, thus unable to speak up and couldn’t be discovered as victims of all kinds of abuse.”

What follows are excerpts of Zollner’s phone conversation with Crux.

There’s been a lot of virtual working and networking on abuse prevention these past months. Will this continue into the future?

I certainly believe that the past months have changed a lot and have taught us a lot in terms on how we teach, how we do workshops, how much it’s possible to have going on online in terms of formation and education. There will be a profound change for many, if not all sectors of teaching. It’s sped up the process of online learning, and everyone in this field with whom I’ve spoken is convinced that it’s going to change the landscape once and for all.

Of course, much still has to be learned, and not all is helpful and easy. But it’s had and will continue to have an impact on the field of safeguarding as well.

When you say it’s going to have an impact, do you see it as a positive one?

At the Center for Child Protection of the Gregorian University we’ve worked with e-learning for nine years now, and one reason was the fact that we can reach a wider number of people, at a much more economic cost. There’s much to gain, but there are also question marks.

What are some of those question marks or challenges?

The challenge is especially with a topic like safeguarding, child protection, particularly with a person who has been abused or knows somebody who has been abused, there’s a personal side to the process, where you need to be able to have the personal back up and support, so that people are not left alone to deal with something that is very difficult to bear with.

On the other hand, you can have big numbers of participants: I was involved in one online seminar with 10,000 people. But we don’t know how much real output these webinars have, and how lasting the concrete effect is. I think that there’s certainly the possibility that you get information out, but not all subjects and areas are prone to be taught and learned online equally.

You can teach technical things or language very well online, but when it comes to personal reflections or how to deal emotionally with things such as abuse prevention it’s very difficult to do that only online because you need reliable accompaniment.

Have you seen, or do you expect to see, a rise on cases of sexual abuse after so many months of mandatory lockdown?

This – more abuse happening in the families – is something that people we who work on the field have been suspecting from the beginning, and we have indications in the few empirical studies that are already out that confirm that. We still don’t know for sure, as you would need to have some larger studies and so forth. But the impression is and the indicators are pointing clearly in that direction: More abuse has happened in the family context during the pandemic, because children and vulnerable people were exposed to offenders in the family with very little, if any, possibility to run away or report. If a person is behind your shoulder, how will you phone someone for help? And because of the lack of the normal social control that happens in a house or neighborhood where other people live. Children couldn’t go to school, to sports or see their friends, and were instead always confined, thus unable to speak up and couldn’t be discovered as victims of all kinds of abuse.

The other factor in this is that parents were stressed out, and you can imagine that because of being confined, with question marks about work, finances, and so forth, there was a huge additional stress factor that in some cases had the effect that people were triggered and became abusive, either physically, psychologically or sexually.

You’re in touch with several abuse victims. Have you heard any of them ask “why is the Vatican not doing anything with specific cases during the lockdown?” Or do you think the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith continued working as much as possible during the lockdown?

They were certainly affected in the way other offices and institutions have been impacted, but I don’t believe they’ve slowed down the work. I cannot imagine them using the pandemic as a pretext. I know them to have a very high work ethos and to have continued to work.

Of course, it’s affected communications, transport, and all kinds of possibilities to work in your office where you have the documents, but you cannot access them because you’re not allowed to leave your home. But, despite the impact, I am sure there hasn’t been any purposeful intention not to carry out the work.

Last week, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors met in Rome, both in person and online, depending where the members are from. How fruitful was that meeting, at what are the steps from the PCPM moving forward?

The meeting was fruitful in the sense that we met for the first time in a year as a full body even if most people were present online, and we could update each other. We found a reasonable way to work with a membership who sit in Tonga on one side of the world and Colombia on the other.

We continue to work in the working groups, with the limitations that the situation has brought about: Survivors panels work has been going on in some places; the education field has worked for example with the UISG (Union of Female Superior Generals) in webinars that were a huge success in terms of numbers of participants; and the working group on structural and canonical issues continues its work. We had productive conversations and meetings, but we had to cancel some of the things we had in mind. We’ve continued our efforts, even if they’re not as visible as we’d want.

What would you tell survivors and advocates around the world who are trying to address the clerical abuse crisis while looking towards the Church in Rome — where there are things still happening in Rome, or that are not being done by Rome, such as releasing the report on former cardinal Theodore McCarrick?

I would say, first of all, that I understand the frustration and feelings that people might have regarding the specific questions that any one person might have which might not have been dealt with, or that the allegations they’ve made has not come to a closure and change is not visible for this particular case. I can understand this fully.

But I would also point out that over the past six years, and more intensely since the February meeting in 2019 [when heads of the bishops conference met in Rome for a summit on the protection of minors], a good number of relevant and very important things have changed for the universal Church. We have a new law [Vos estis lux mundi] that gives directions about how to deal canonically with bishops who are not compliant with Church proceedings when it comes to dealing with allegations; i.e. the concept of accountability has been introduced.

Secondly, the abolishing of the pontifical secret for cases of clerical abuse back in December as well as the raising of the age for what’s considered online sexual exploitation of minors online from 14 to 18.

I can understand that people don’t see the immediate impact if they have specific cases or points that they would like to see changed. The responsibility for all this doesn’t lie only in Rome, it’s very often the local level where things aren’t carried out. How much that applies to the McCarrick report, I cannot say since I am not involved in it at all.

But in terms of common legal procedures, and in terms of attention given at the highest level and substantial change made, these are huge steps. We’ve been working for these for years, and, finally, they’ve come about.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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