New institute offers next-level skills needed for safeguarding experts

Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, one of the Vatican's top experts in the field of clergy sexual abuse, is pictured in a file photo greeting Andrew Collins, David Ridsdale and Peter Blenkiron at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome March 3, 2016. The three men said they were child sex abuse victims in Australia. Father Zollner has been named president of the Pontifical Gregorian University's new Institute of Anthropology: Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care, which emphasizes the social sciences in abuse prevention and care. (CNS photo/Tony Gentile, Reuters)

ROME (CNS) -- A new academic institute dedicated to training experts in safeguarding and in the care of survivors will be the next step in helping the church stop denying the reality of abuse and improve the way it reacts to allegations, said Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, president of the new institute.

The Pontifical Gregorian University's new Institute of Anthropology: Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care "seeks to prioritize the care of all human persons, especially children and the most vulnerable and marginalized of our societies," he said at the institute's inauguration Oct. 14.

"We can no longer accept excuses for not listening to victims, for ignoring their suffering, and we need to work for the care of children and vulnerable adults alike. That is the heart of our work," said Father Zollner, a licensed psychologist and psychotherapist who is also a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

The Vatican-approved academic institute, now with its own faculty and ability to award advanced academic degrees, evolved from the Gregorian University's Centre for Child Protection.

That center has already trained more than 140 graduates, sharing their skills and knowledge with church members around the world, showing by example the need "to be steadfast in our dedication to such an important mission, even in the face of institutional pushback and individual resistance," he said.

The new institute will expand the scope and sophistication of its research and offer interdisciplinary studies on human dignity and care, with a strong emphasis on the social sciences, psychology and pedagogy as well as theology, canon law and philosophy.

This multiskills approach will help "deepen our understanding of how these crippling wounds came about, how we can work together to root out abuse in its many forms, and what we need to do so that the church and other organizations do not deny the reality of this scourge and change in their institutional and systemic makeup and action," Father Zollner said.

Jörg Fegert, medical director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Ulm, Germany, was one of a number of speakers who underlined how important research and social science skills are for improving safeguarding.

"Prevention and protection in institutions cannot generally be brought about by a general code of conduct or a general safeguarding concept," he said.

Science looks for "relative risk" and "the basic frequency in a certain population" of the risk of the occurrence of abuse when establishing a policy, he said.

So even though the number of priests who are known abusers in Germany is relatively small in relation to the general population, "the number of alleged acts committed by priests makes a perceptible part of the pie (chart), with about 6% to 8%, so we have an increased risk in priests for abuse and we have to address this in a specific way," he said.

Risk is also higher in certain situations or environments, Fegert said.

Abused or neglected children living in a home or facility “have an increased risk to have new cases of abuse in these institutions, so the safeguarding concept for a kindergarten has to be completely different" than one for higher-risk institutions, he said.

Researchers study where abuse happens, and often it is not in the institute itself, but at the home of the victim when a priest visits, he told Catholic News Service Oct. 15.

Research and social science are needed, he said, because surveys offer valuable information, and feedback can flag "special situations" that can all be used so "you can tailor a prevention program" to each situation.

"Most people today still think that (sexual abuse) is rare and it can't happen in my environment," he said.

But if people look at studies done in Germany, for example, the results suggest about 10% of the general population have survived sexual abuse; "then you know people who are sexually abused; (they are among) your neighbors, other children, that is the dimension (of the problem) that we have to understand," he said.

Abuse happens everywhere, he said, and countries like Spain and Italy, where the church has not conducted independent investigations into historic abuse in its institutions, would be "well advised to start now before the wave comes.”

It can take just one revelation that "opens the mouths of many victims," he said.

In a video message, Juan Carlos Cruz, a survivor of sexual abuse by a notorious Chilean priest and a member of the papal commission, told the more than 150 attendees at the inauguration that "as a victim-survivor it's important to have people that have a strong formation in human dignity and who know how to treat survivors and understand survivors.”

"As a Catholic, I am grateful for so many people that have been in my journey, and especially the Holy Father (Pope Francis), who really made me feel like Lazarus. I am a resurrected man after having had my life destroyed," he said.

Praising Father Zollner's previous endeavors, Cruz said he hoped the new institute would go on to create "many, many apostles of human dignity and care around the world.”