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An Interview with Father Hans Zollner, S.J.

Updated: Mar 30

by Gordon Nary

Gordon: Why did you decide to become a Jesuit?

Father Zollner: I entered the seminary in my home diocese of Regensburg and there I experienced, through my spiritual director, my first personal directed retreat. It was at this retreat that I came to know the Jesuit spirituality and the spiritual exercises. From that moment on I was fascinated by the way of praying and meditating as Ignatius proposes and the dynamic of the retreats, as well as the theology behind the spiritual exercises.

Gordon: Where did you attend seminary, and where did you receive your academic training?

Father Zollner: I started at the University of Regensburg. I then went to the University of Innsbruck where I concluded my degree in theology, And then, after having entered the Society of Jesus, I went to the Gregorian for my degree in Psychology as well as for my training in psychotherapy and returned to Innsbruck for my Doctorate in Theology.

Gordon: In addition to being a priest, you are also a psychologist. Where did you study psychology, and what was your most challenging course?

Father Zollner: Again, I studied psychology at the Gregorian in Rome after having become a Jesuit. Social psychology was challenging, not because of the subject itself, but because of the challenge of combining the individual psycho-dynamic approach (which we follow here) and the social-psychological approach. I have to say that as of late, I have understood much better the importance of a social psychological approach and all the attention we need to give in psychology as well as in theology to the organizational and institutional side.

Gordon: When did you start teaching at the Institute of Psychology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and what are the topics that you teach?

Father Zollner: I began teaching at the Institute in 2003. I teach and also offer psychotherapy in an intersubjective, relational line. I taught Introduction to Psychology in Religion, keeping in line with my specific interest in the link between psychology, spirituality, and religion.

Gordon: When were you appointed to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, and what are your primary responsibilities?

Father Zollner: In 2014 I was appointed to the Commission in the original group of eight founding members. From the beginning, my focus was on education and formation in safeguarding. Since the beginning, I have been leading in the PCPM the working group on this topic, especially concerning church leadership.

Gordon: You are also president of the Centre for Child Protection (CCP) at the Gregorian. What are your primary responsibilities?

Father Zollner: As the president of the CCP, my responsibilities are in different fields, as I head a team based in Rome. Since the beginning, we have offered a blended learning program that is offered in collaboration with partner institutions worldwide. We have created residential academic programs, as well, in the forms of a one-semester Diploma course, which will be offered in Spanish starting next year, in addition to the English version we currently teach, and the Licentiate (Masters) course in safeguarding, offered in English. We are involved in research and the accompaniment of doctoral dissertations. Often I lead workshops and participate in conferences concerning the issue of sexual abuse. This takes me abroad, where I can see, on the ground, what is going on in real-time in these dioceses and speak with cardinals, bishops conferences, religious superiors, clergy in general, men and women religious, and all kinds of the laity who work in the field of safeguarding both within and outside of the Church.

Gordon: When and why was the Centre for Child Protection been renamed the Institute of Anthropology: Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care?

Father Zollner: The Centre for Child Protection – or CCP – will officially become the Institute of Anthropology: Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care (IADC)on September 1, 2021, with the start of the new academic year. Since the founding of the center in 2012, our focus has slowly broadened to consider issues like child dignity online, abuse of power and spiritual abuse, and the abuse of vulnerable persons. While the Institute will certainly continue to pay close attention to the protection of children, it will open its scope of research topics and be able to partake in discussions that pertain to these others sorts of abuse that exist within the church.

Each part of its name can be broken down as such:

Institute: it will allow for building up our teaching faculty as well as for the offering of a doctorate degree and research.

Anthropology: the subjects studied pertain to human beings in any given culture, time, and context. Furthermore, studies surrounding human dignity and what that means can differ from culture to culture, so this new name will allow for the specific analysis of and research within each particular cultural situation.

Interdisciplinary: the new Institute will come together with other disciplines studied and taught in other faculties at the Gregorian, since human dignity is a topic in many fields, such as canon law, philosophy, social sciences, and theology. An interdisciplinary approach will allow the Institute to pool as much knowledge as possible from each specific field of study.

Human Dignity and Care: The core focus of the Centre for Child Protection’s mission has always been the human person – specifically survivor-victims who inform our work.

Since people have always been the main focus of our work, it seemed clear that this would remain the common thread in the Institute’s future studies and academic endeavors. Caring for all human beings and protecting the dignity inherent within each of God’s creations has always been the main focus of our work and will remain such.

Gordon: You were also a member of the Scientific Working Group of the “Round Table on Child Abuse” commissioned by the Federal Government of Germany. How did this lay the groundwork for Centre for Child Protection?

Father Zollner: I was appointed to this group that functioned from 2010-2012. In the meetings of that working group, I came to know the German-speaking experts in psychiatry, pedagogy, social sciences in general in the area of safeguarding. The e-learning program that the Centre for Child Protection offered at the beginning was based on a program developed on behalf of the German Federal Research Ministry in 2011. When I saw it, it was immediately clear that this is something the Catholic Church could use, as it is relatively low-cost, can be translated easily, and can reach many more people than with the traditional methods of dissemination of information, as well as be offered in many different languages. After having gotten permission from the Minister and the professor who presented this e-learning program, we started, together with the Archdiocese of Munich the Centre for Child Protection in 2012, using this course as our blueprint for our e-learning safeguarding program, cf

Gordon: What initially interested you in the protection of children from sexual abuse?

Father Zollner: I believe that this is something that should be natural for every human being, especially Christians because Jesus calls the little ones to be with him and cares for those most vulnerable in this world. The Church has done much for the protection of children historically, but we have also seen abuse of children in the Church. So, my understanding was: we need to do something to continue the work of the protection of children with consistency and commitment.

Gordon: Sometimes in reports, the term pedophile is used inaccurately. Please explain the difference between pedophilia, hebephilia, and ephebophilia.

Father Zollner: That’s very true. Pedophilia is a serious psychiatric condition that means that a person is sexually attracted to, either exclusively or over some time, or acts sexually with children who have not yet hit puberty. This is different from ephebophilia – the abuse of adolescents – in so far as pedophilia in medicine is considered a psychiatric disorder and ephebophilia are not. In both psychiatry and law, there is a distinction made between a minor of age who has not yet gone through puberty and a minor who has begun puberty or has already gone through puberty. The legislative penalties for abusing a child versus an adolescent are different in many countries. Hebephilia is vague, as a term, because it is used by some to describe adolescents going through puberty at present.

Gordon: When did you write The Church and Pedophilia – An Open Wound: A Psychological and Pastoral Approach, and what were some of your recommendations?

Father Zollner: Giovanni Cucci SJ and I had our book published in 2010. In a matter of 120 pages, more or less, we delved into the issue of sexual abuse in the Church and spelled out some ways in which we could combat this. To name just a few: we need to study the issue in all its complexities, we need to be consistent between what we preach and what we do, and we need to learn about the consequences and take responsibility for the past and deal with it. Taking into account that this is a human problem that has always existed and will continue to exist, we all, the Church especially, need to do whatever is within reach to change how people behave and commit to creating a safer world and safer Church. We should all be working on creating an environment in which all vulnerable people, especially children, are safe.

Gordon: What can the Church do to more effectively screen seminarians and priests as potential or active child sexual abusers?

Father Zollner: Since St., John Paul’s Pastores Dabo Vobis (1992) the Church has insisted on a proper and serious screening process for seminarians and candidates for religious life, also applicable to all sorts of people who work in Catholic institutions, like teachers and those working with children. This has been very forcefully repeated by the document on priestly formation by the Congregation for the Clergy that came out three years ago, stating in n. 202: “Greatest attention must be given” to the admission process so that no one who shows signs of possible pedophilic disorder or has had convictions in his past is admitted to the seminary or religious houses. There is a common misconception that psychology could screen out 100% of people who are pedophiles. Psychology simply cannot do that. Some pedophiles can hide their inclinations and pathology by seeming very kind and good with children. Even with all these screenings, it’s still not enough. We need to open our eyes and use common sense as well. It cannot be left to the psychologists alone to weed out the perpetrators or future perpetrators.

Gordon: Is there a disproportionate number of child sexual abuse in the United States based on the population than in other countries?

Father Zollner: It is very difficult to get true numbers on this because there is a huge Dunkelfeld (“dark field”), i.e., the numbers are much bigger than those reported. Few people speak out. Some say that for every one case reported, you may have five or even ten times more unreported cases. The Council of Europe says that one out of five children in Europe is abused sexually. We are dealing with enormous numbers. It is a huge societal problem, not exclusive to the Catholic Church, and it is likely not disproportionate in the USA than in other countries. In certain cultures, some may not defend a girl who has just gone through puberty and is married off as a child bride because in that culture she may be considered a woman. So, the numbers regarding any specific country are unclear.

Gordon: What response did you get from Church officials in Australia when you addressed them in June 2019?

Father Zollner: They are very well aware of the situation, of course, and there is a lot of sadness and spiritual desolation in this. Many people in Australia are aware that there is only one way out, which is to restore confidence in what we do and who we are. We must be consistent with our actions and words. Trust is built on this alone, and people measure you based on the consistency between what you proclaim and what you do. And there is still a long way to regain that trust.

Gordon: What do you say to Church officials in areas where there is resistance in looking into the issue of sexual abuse and a downplaying of the size of the problem?

Father Zollner: It is going to come also to you in a certain country and society. We have seen this time and time again. It depends very much on the development of sensitivity and awareness in a certain society. When a society comes to a certain level of willingness to do something and is aware of the seriousness of the problem, the whole thing comes to ahead, and it cannot be stopped at any border. We have seen it develop over the past 35 years, that it has arrived in places that before pointed the finger at other countries, claiming it is a problem belonging to other countries but not them. It is better to be prepared to face this problem head-on, as this movement is not going to stop any time soon.

Gordon: How helpful for survivors to communicate with other survivors of clerical sexual abuse?

Father Zollner: Often, victims of abuse don't speak about the abuse right away. It could take years for them to share their story, which means that for years they might feel alone. Just look at the #MeToo movement: once one person spoke up, it made many others feel like they were not alone and others were standing by them. There is strength in numbers, and the more connected survivors are with one another, the easier it is for that wound to begin to heal.

Gordon: How is the healing process of survivors of clerical sexual abuse applicable to survivors of other forms of sexual abuse?

Father Zollner: There is a spiritual aspect to the healing process of survivors of clerical sexual abuse which some might say is not applicable to victims of sexual abuse who are not a part of the Catholic faith. However, sexual abuse is not just a surface level; it is not only something that affects the body. Sexual abuse always carries the same weight and impacts the lives of victim-survivors without bias for one's faith. It is multi-layered, and it has a psychological, spiritual effect even on the human conscience or character. So, one difference in the healing process for clerical sexual abuse survivors might be how they also must heal this deep spiritual wound in order for some to hold onto their faith, and for others, quite remarkably, to deepen their faith by finding meaning from the trauma faced, in other words by experiencing the Cross profoundly they discover a renewed spiritual depth beyond measure.

The spiritual aspect of the healing process of clerical sexual abuse survivors might be one that could also apply to sexual abuse survivors who do not belong to the same faith or any faith at all, precisely because that spiritual aspect, of belonging to a greater community which intends to leave the world a better place than they found it, is one that is found in the core of all human beings

Gordon: What advice would you give survivors of clerical sexual abuse?

Father Zollner: First of all, my sincere hope is that any survivor of clerical sexual abuse did not feel responsible, that what happened to them is not their fault, that they are good, loving persons and God loves them. Secondly, it is vitally important to share your story, which might be in a therapeutic setting with a counselor, in a support group, even with a close friend. Moreover, it has become clearer to me from my work which includes hearing the voices of survivors, listening to their stories, that more fulfilling healing is realized when survivors are able to share their own journey with other survivors. There is interior freedom that comes from being able to connect with others who have gone through a similar experience, however horrible the memory is and how painful the shame felt. This would be my heartfelt advice for all the survivors in our midst who crave, desire, and deserve healing. When survivors embrace a fellowship of sorts, they have an opportunity to heal together, which is not unlike how we all share in the Paschal Mystery of our Lord, His suffering, death, and resurrection.

My concrete recommendations are: move on according to your pace, don’t push and don’t allow to be pushed in any direction; if possible, share your journey towards healing with one (not many) person; be prepared for flashbacks, disappointments, doubts, strong emotions – that’s normal; if you believe in God, entrust your journey to God; expect that the scares and some pain will remain, and focus on and cherish the steps forward that you have already done towards healing, more trust, more self-confidence because it’s easy to overlook them once when gets again in dark times. Tell yourself (and listen to those who can affirm this): “I have come a long way already, I can continue the journey towards more light” – and share this experience and encouragement with other survivors.

Gordon: What are some of the more difficult challenges in addressing Clerical sexual abuse?

Father Zollner: The biggest issue remains the hesitancy in many cultures and contexts to discuss the reality that this has happened and is happening. When the topic of clerical sexual abuse is brought up, many people simply shut down and stop the conversation.

So, the first challenge is creating an open dialogue about it. Some cultures have confronted the issue, while others have yet to begin, and this results in a very disjointed conversation when it comes to approaching the topic of clerical sexual abuse on a global scale – as the church itself is global and requires a cohesive movement to root out these underlying causes of abuse. Another challenge is precisely that: that the Catholic Church is a worldwide institution, made up of about 1.2 billion people, meaning that in order to see change on such a broad scale, it is going to naturally take more time due to inertia.

Clericalism is part of a deep-seated “culture” of defensiveness and negligence in the church worldwide. More and more leaders and faithful in the Church realize that we need to confront this head-on because it is part of the Mission of the Church, but still much work needs to be done.

Gordon: You recently wrote in Catholic News Service that Women must be included in the of priest. Please explain to our readers your reasoning for this recommendation.

Father Zollner: A greater and qualified involvement of women in priestly formation is asked for the “Ratio Fundamentalis”, the worldwide guideline for priestly formation, issued on 8 December 2016 by the Congregation for Clergy in Rome. It reads in n. 151: “The presence of women in the Seminary journey of formation has its own formative significance. They can be found as specialists, on the teaching staff, within the apostolate, within families, and in service to the community. Their presence also helps to instill recognition of how men and women complement one another.”

hat means the Holy See itself says that women are indispensable in the important task of training candidates to the priesthood. Women should participate in formation in many ways: in the admission process, in teaching, in accompaniment etc. They should be integral part of the team of formators and of the decision making process when it comes to the promotion to ordination. Without their presence in the formation process, the candidates risk to be unrealistic about women, relationships, sexuality, and may lack the balance and integration so essential to his priestly life.

There is no question whether to include women in priestly formation or not: the highest Church authority in this field demands it.

Gordon: In closing, I recommend that everyone read the article that you co-wrote in Child Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health titled Prevention of sexual abuse: improved information is crucial.

Farther Zollner resigned his position on Mach 29, 2023

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