Full interview with Fr Hans Zollner: Confronting the reality of abuse
Father Hans Zollner SJ, President of the Centre for Child Protection at the Gregorian University in Rome and a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, is the Vatican’s foremost expert on safeguarding minors. In Australia last week, he spoke to Catholic Weekly journalist, Catherine Sheehan, about what the Church has learned through the sex abuse crisis.
Fr Zollner, how extensive is child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church? For example, can you say what percentage of clergy or religious have abused?
There are very few reliable statistics and research being done. Only from a few countries.One is Australia, another one is the US, and maybe five other countries. The extent is more or less consistently of about three, to five, to six per cent of priests in a specific period of time, which relates mostly to what we know, where the research has taken place, from around 1950 to 2010. Whereas over the past 10 to 20 years, depending on the country, the numbers have dropped almost to nil. Of allegations referring to these last 10 to 20 years … where a church has decided to introduce Safeguarding measures, and codes of conduct, and guidelines to implement them … they work. And where information on Safeguarding are obligatory and supervision on that is mandatory, it works.
So the Church began implementing these measures ten years ago?
It was in 2002 in the US they introduced the so-called Dallas Charter, guidelines and mandatory information sessions every year. In Australia, as has been shown by the Royal Commission … in almost all dioceses the number of allegations referring to the current years, not 50 years ago or 30 years ago, is almost nil.
The impression is often given through the media that child sexual abuse is rife in the Catholic Church. Is it possible to say that it is more likely to take place in the Church as opposed to the wider society?
We cannot say it is more likely and people who say so can’t present statistics. For the simple fact that … There is no other institution, there is no other Christian denomination or religion, that has been investigated as thoroughly as the Catholic Church. So there is no real comparison to that. And even within professional groups, there is not research that would cover, for example, school teachers in public schools … psychologists, doctors, police, music or sports trainers. So we don’t have a reliable number for comparing the number of Catholic priests, especially if you talk about the whole population of one particular profession.
We have also to acknowledge that by far most sexual abuse and of course physical abuse of minors happens in the family context. I … heard somebody who was involved in the Royal Commission’s proceedings [say] that they believe that 95 per cent of all abuse in Australia happens within the family context. Which means five per cent of all abuse happens in all institutions altogether, of which the Catholic Church is a part. Now this does not excuse the Catholic Church. Every single abuse that takes place is one too many. Every single abuse that is committed by Catholic clergy and other personnel in the Church is a horrendous crime and needs to be prosecuted and punished full stop.
So the amount of abuse perpetrated by clergy, religious or other Church personnel would be less than 5 per cent of the total amount of child sexual abuse in society?
No, 95 per cent [occurs] in [the] family context, in society at large. Five per cent in all institutions of which the Catholic Church is one part of. So all the public schools, all the psychologists would be in the 5 per cent.
Yes, so it would be less the 5 per cent?
Much less than 5 per cent.
Father, in your opinion, is the Catholic Church doing enough to address the problem of child sexual abuse?
We can’t ever do enough. But the Catholic Church in Australia has done a lot and is certainly among the top five in the world. If you come to the local churches, or bishop’s conferences in this country, you have all kinds of resources allocated money, personnel trained. You have officers established, you have information sessions running, you have conferences like this [one in the Diocese of Wollongong]. You have a response to the Royal Commission’s recommendations that accepts 98 per cent of all recommendations without any discussion and you have an atmosphere of willingness to really act upon what the Church asks … and what society asks it to do.
Speaking from your background as a psychologist, what do victims of child sexual abuse most need for their healing?
Most victims with whom I have met, to whom I have listened, say that the one thing that sticks out and that all they long for is being listened to, which is something that is easily said and not so easily done because it means that the listener, whoever that is, needs to be open, not only in his or her mind, but also in his or her heart and really empathise and understand the depth of the suffering of the person who shares that. Many survivors say they would like somebody in a Church hierarchical position to listen to them. Normally if the abuse has happened in a diocese they would ask the bishop, or for a religious congregation, the Provincial. Some don’t want to meet with any clergy anymore so it would need to be somebody else. But all concur in this, that the most important single element in a possible healing process, is being really listened to … all say this is the possible starting point.