Child protection expert Fr. Hans Zollner SJ urges Catholics to make safeguarding children and vulnerable people in the Church a core part of their ministry.

“How do we understand our faith, our relationship with God and how do we pray with this moment in Church history, our personal history?”

Internationally recognised child protection expert, Fr Hans Zollner SJ, poses the question to a rapt audience at the Marist Brothers Centre in Melbourne at a workshop co-hosted by CPSL and the Implementation Advisory Group.

“Do we pray to that, do we cry to God, do we really read the psalms and scripture as a whole in view of what we are going through, or is it also dissociated?”

 “[Do] we live our parish life and spiritual life as if it didn’t happen, or didn’t influence us?”

Fr Zollner cites a verse from the prophet Jeremiah lamenting an absence of prophets and leaders.

“Many of us feel like that, right, so it’s already there. But do we really talk with God in our language about this kind of experience?”

About forty people from congregations, Catholic organisations and parishes came on a rainy Saturday morning in June to listen to Fr Zollner, one of the world’s pre-eminent experts on the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.

The Jesuit is a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and President of the Centre for the Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

Over the course of an hour, Fr Zollner spoke about the Catholic Church admitting to and acting on past wrongdoing.  His address touched on both the many instances of child sexual abuse that occurred within Church entities but also the failure of church authorities to expose perpetrators and their failure to believe and support survivors.

Change is required from within

Fr Zollner doesn’t believe the resistance to deal with the crisis is over, labelling the attitudes of many within the Church hierarchy today as constituting a “passive resistance” to reckoning with the crisis.  Fr Zollner contends this passive resistance stems from a deep aversion to the discomfort inherent in dealing with trauma.

He says the reluctance of those in authority to deal with abuse of the most vulnerable within their flocks is causing a kind of “splitting” or “dissociation” in the hearts of those who cannot bring themselves to confront the realities of child sexual abuse within Church communities.

Fr Zollner posits that this splitting – which he says is similar to the cognitive dissonance known to affect victims of trauma -  might also affect those within the Church who want to distance themselves from the events that have thrown an uncomfortable spotlight on the Catholic Church.  Stressing that the ‘trauma’ experienced by the Church is in no way of the same magnitude experienced by victims of sexual assault, Fr Zollner nevertheless sees certain commonalities.

“There is a lot of that trauma accumulated in our house and I believe this is weighing on us, paralysing us, influencing us much more than we are aware of … we don’t get rid of it easily, we need to work through, it,” he says.

“This is painful [because] it reminds us continuously of the trauma that has been elicited ... taking it on means that we need change in law and norms and in change in heart and attitude.”

A system-wide approach is needed

To confront its failure to deal with child sexual abuse, the Church will need to address the systematic patterns of abuse, cover ups, and injustices that have occurred across continents and ministries.

Fr Zollner uses sociologist Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory to contextualise these failures and provide insights into where safeguarding practices can be established within systems and sub-systems to prevent abuse from happening.

He highlights the dynamics that can arise in the interactions of individuals within a single system, like a family, a school, a parish or a government, and also points to the relationships that arise between people and groups within layered systems.  Each system can influence one another and in each system there are risks of abuse.

There are also opportunities to prevent abuse and a raft of approaches, from the system-wide to the strategically targeted, where we can apply interventions to protect the most vulnerable in our communities.  This is the ongoing work of safeguarding, and part of the fundamental ministry of the Church today, according to Fr Zollner.

Falling to earth – a shift in language in the conversation about the Church

Fr Zollner points out that the system-wide failings of the Church are now at the core of the conversation of child sexual abuse within the Church and says this change in focus from the individual to the system-level developed in tandem with a broader cultural-social movement.
“[This change] came about at the same time as the #MeToo movement in the US where the untouchables, the gods of Hollywood and sports and so forth, have fallen and have become touchables”, Fr. Zollner contends.

“The same has happened in the Church ...  sorry to say this but as long as we don’t cope with it squarely, head on, it will stick with us,” he says.  “I don’t think even at this present time [in Australia ] we are facing it squarely. We are still lingering, avoiding it.  Humanly speaking, psychologically speaking, it is very understandable, because it is an ugly and challenging topic; it is very uncomfortable.”

Drawing the session to a close, Fr Zollner voices a question he is often asked: what is the role of individual Catholics who may perceive themselves as isolated and powerless within the vast Church system?

 “The question is, what can I do? Many say, many faithful: parishioners, school teachers, priests, bishops, they say, ‘I can't do anything, I am just that simple person’.  [The] problem is, if we say that, all of us, then nothing will move. If each one of us here, if each one of us in their own particular place, does what is possible, things will change."

A breath of fresh air

Fr Dan Strickland MGL, Director of Missionaries of God’s Love and an attendee at the event, was impressed by the candour of Fr Zollner’s presentation.

"The session with Fr Hans Zollner was like a breath of fresh air,” he enthused.  “He was informative, honest, and wasn't afraid to call the Church's leadership on its mistakes, while at the same time being compassionate and prophetic about what the crisis means for the Church as we move into the future."

CPSL’s Learning and Development Manager, Luke Whiteside, was similarly impressed.  “Over 40 (people) attended to hear Fr Hans speak with clarity and conviction on the challenges and urgency of responding to safeguarding matters.  He spoke with a global perspective, particularly relevant for ministries who have a presence overseas”.

Catholic Professional Standards Limited (CPSL) would like to thank Fr Hans Zollner for joining this session.