Last week, a well-known center at one of Rome’s pontifical universities aimed at protecting children from clerical sexual abuse, and beyond, was upgraded to an institute of anthropology, giving the Church’s most respected academic outfit devoted to child protection room to grow.

As of Sept. 1, the Center for Child Protection at the Gregorian University in Rome will become the Institute of Anthropology, Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care. According to German Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, the possibility of making it an “Institute on Safeguarding” was discussed, but there’s no such discipline in the academic world thus far.

The change, which goes deeper than a new name, was ratified April 15 by the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education. The Institute will take over the work of the CCP, continuing to carry out pioneering research and formation in the field of child protection as a faculty within the Gregorian, with its own academic staff, with the ability to award degrees and doctorates.

Zollner, one of the most respected experts in the field, is both a psychologist and theologian. He spoke with Crux at length April 29, in an office at the Gregorian. With him was Mexican Father Daniel del Portillo, founder of Mexico’s center for child protection, hosted by the local pontifical university.

The two men discussed the Church’s poor response to protection of children during the pandemic, and the false dichotomy of evangelization efforts vs. child protection. What follows are excerpts of that conversation, and, unless otherwise indicated, the respondent is Zollner.

Crux: Why the upgrade to an Institute of Anthropology?

Zollner: Because an institute can have and develop its own faculty membership, which for a center is not possible within the structure of our university. If you want to have more teaching personnel and researchers you need to be an institute.

Why an anthropology institute, and not one that refers to protecting minors?

We considered the possibility of creating an institute of “Safeguarding”, but the considerations and deliberations showed that, as of yet, there’s no academic discipline called Safeguarding. Whereas anthropology is as broad a discipline as you can imagine, which offers the possibility to have experts from different disciplines working under one academic heading with regard to the specific goals of this Institute, which are expressed in the subtitle: “human dignity and care of vulnerable people.”

Are you afraid that the next administration, either of the Gregorian or the Institute, will exploit that ambiguity and move away from safeguarding?

To the contrary, over the last three to four years, this was our evolving reasoning which the university leadership also shared: the situation has changed over the last four years with #MeToo, with [former cardinal Theodore] McCarrick, the reports on religious sisters and seminarians as victims of abuse, with the growing awareness of abuse of power and spiritual abuse.

The whole consideration that we have of the double crises (!) – abuse itself and its cover up by Church authorities and others – we were confronted with the fact that this is something connected to many areas in life and in the Church. Therefore, we need different instruments and approaches to really tackle it because it’s not a phenomenon you can deal with, for example, only using psychology and psychiatry. Yes, these will have its importance, but it will also be necessary to ask about the institutional side, the organizational aspects, the juridical facts. For the Church context we need also to take into account the spiritual wounds that are inflicted in victims of abuse, and those spiritualities and theologies that have brought about an institutional and theological response that was in favor of the perpetrators and not of the victims.

What’s the role of Father Daniel del Portillo?

Daniel has worked for many years in this field, he holds two doctorates. He established the CEPROME, and from its beginning we were in collaboration. His presence here has to do first of all with the first diploma course in Spanish that we ran this semester – students coming mostly from Latin America -, and of course, Spanish is still the most important language for the Catholic. This is obviously, an important reason for him to be here.

Why not do this in Latin America?

Del Portillo: We recognize that the largest population for the Catholic Church is in Latin America, and the Church in the region has to offer a response to the population. We do it from here and not from Latin America because, with humility, we recognize that the people who can be consulted in different approaches to find that response can be found in the same place, Rome. From here we can coordinate different actions, teachers, experts, involving students to work on this issue.

This isn’t your first move, since the center originally relocated from Germany to Rome.

Zollner: It was at a lakeside in Finland on the 29th of August 2013, so 19 months after the establishment of the center. I was giving a retreat there. Early morning I woke up with a beautiful sunshine and it occurred very clearly to me that we had to move to Rome because if we were to continue that work, which was at the time still to be determined by Church authorities and our donors, it had to be at a place where everything is the Catholic Church is coming together.

In Rome you have the Holy See and its dicasteries and bishops coming through here all the time, you have many congregations and religious orders with their headquarters. The CCP was established in Munich as a center of the institute of psychology of the Pontifical Gregorian University, but we saw that we needed also the physical closeness with the rest of the university here in Rome. When I asked Cardinal [Reinhard] Marx the following morning, with no preparation, if we could move to Rome he said, that not only we could move to Rome, but we had to. He’d given lots of money and logistical support, as the CCP was in offices that belonged to the archdiocese.

Honestly, I can’t imagine what would have happened had we stayed in Munich.

Have things really changed, or is all cosmetics, and the Church still faces the same struggles and challenges, with the same flaws?

What I meant is that people now talk about issues like child sexual abuse that have been around for a long time but were not mentioned or talked about, were not really in the media. The same thing with MeToo or religious sisters, why did we not realize this before? Why did the abuse crisis explode in Germany only in 2010, while one could follow occasional news about abuse at least since 2002, after The Boston Globe Spotlight revelations? Yes, it didn’t come to the tipping point in Germany until January 2010.

I ask journalists asked sometimes: “Why didn’t you report about abuse before, why didn’t you do interviews with victims 12 years ago?” It seems that societies have to come to a certain awareness or sensitivity to really be able to address these issues. And this is the reason why, still now, I guess that 75 percent of countries in the world are not at that tipping point. Yes, we talk now especially within the Catholic Church about abuse in many countries, but has it gotten to the stage of a general preoccupation, interest and work about it? No.

The pandemic has shown that once people have to care for their lives, food and health, they forget about everything else. And even in those countries where there is no immediate need to fight for one’s life and food day after day sexual violence is a reality and a topic people despise and reject to talk about.

Even though we know that with the pandemic, it’s gotten worse…

On top of it, yes, this is the case according to all what we know from research: violence and abuse at home and sexual exploitation online have increased dramatically.

Pope Francis and Father Daniel Portillo of CEPROME, the Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Formation for the Protection of Minors from the Pontifical University of Mexico. In a video he sent to CEPROME in 2020, with the priest standing next to him, Francis urged Latin Americans to work on abuse prevention even though “you will be threatened, because there are those who are threatened. More than one will tell you that they are capable of hiring a hit man to clean up the field.” (Crux screen capture)

What will it take for people in the pews, in dioceses, and in the Vatican, to do something constantly, not only when a story breaks?

Del Portillo: I believe that the pandemic has put a stop or a pause to the issue of prevention in different environments, and I say this particularly because of the actions that we as a Church should have taken in this past year, from the Vatican and also from each episcopal conference. The pandemic to some extent put a pause, perhaps even more severe, to this work of prevention, in such a way that people have been left with the impression that actions were going to be taken and then nothing was done.

I believe that this should redouble our efforts to see concretely what we have to do, because the pandemic itself offers resources to be able to deal with issues such as intrafamily abuse. We have to see how through the screen, from the digital world, we can offer our help as a Church. But I think the Church has been too discreet in the pandemic.

I have met bishops who tell me that today the Church has concentrated on prevention and not on evangelization, as if trying to choose. I think that when we evangelize, we prevent and when we prevent, we evangelize. They are not two alternatives to choose between, because one is part of the other. But let me insist, we have to realize that there are actions that should have been taken and were not taken.

I believe that we have stopped the prevention process, and it will be even more difficult for us to resume when we want to do so. The justification for inaction is the pandemic, and the pretext is very easy to explain why everything has stopped. But I don’t know what kind of pandemic we are referring to, whether it is Covid or the one that is coming.

ZollnerWe are convinced that working for a safer Church, listening to victims and protecting young people is evangelization and is part of the mission of the Church. But for many, bishops and lay people, this is not obvious, they don’t see it that way. I struggle with the question: why is this so? It seems obvious to me that if you don’t defend the minors and the vulnerable ones, we don’t follow what Jesus lived and said. Because he identifies with the little ones, the exploited ones, the wounded ones.

Honestly, I believe that a good number of people in leadership are aware that they have, for many years, in different capacities and responsibilities, failed that part of the Gospel, and they’re struggling to accept that failure, admit that sin. And even if it wasn’t a sin or a crime, it was certainly inconsistent with the Gospel. Repenting on this, admitting it and confessing to it, seems to be pretty demanding, personally and institutionally. Apart from that questions around how we deal with our official doctrine on sexuality and how we live it up automatically arise when one sees the sexual misconduct of clergy. And I’m not talking only about homosexuality: how we present the official doctrine on sexuality and how we ourselves live it and how it’s dealt with in the pastoral field is often very different from the official doctrine. I believe it’s a call to admit honestly that often we are not living up to an idea that we preach, that we aren’t as perfect as we project ourselves and people imagine how we are.

In the general public, when people see the misbehaviors and crimes connected to abuse or its cover up, it makes a huge difference when the perpetrator who is a priest as compared to a sports trainer, a public-school teacher or a choir director, and even parents. People are so angry and disappointed because they didn’t expect a priest to behave like that or a bishop to cover up abuse. Who in the world should be expected to most protect the most vulnerable ones, if not a priest?

Don’t people at this point take for granted that priests misbehave?

When it comes to enrollment in Catholic schools or youth ministry, numbers are not down as much as you would expect. People still trust when they have a good relationship with the parish priest or the school leaders. In countries where you have the Church as a leader in safeguarding and prevention people trust those they personally know. The biggest setback is not that a priest fails or misbehaves – that could be understood and forgiven. The real problem is when we don’t own our failures, deny them and move on as if nothing had happened.

We need to talk of this image of a perfect, pure society of saints which seems to somehow be in the back of the mind of many people in the Church. This has never been the full truth and it will never be the reality of the Church in this world. As Teresa of Avila says in the Interior Castle: even if you reach the seventh mansion, the deepest point of unity with Christ, you still you can fall and fail.

As long as we are on this earth we are never perfect in all – not even saints and our ideals as we painfully learn in these years. But we have the Lord’s promise that when we confess a sin, we will be forgiven. I don’t understand why we have such a hard time owning up to what we have done wrongly, even if it wasn’t the current bishop or provincial but his predecessor.

What needs to happen?

Last week I was with the heads of the French bishops’ conference. I can say that this meeting confirmed my impression of the encounter in Lourdes when I was invited by them three years ago: they have an approach that you don’t see in many other bishops conferences. From my point of view, it seems that they are really trying to listen to and to engage with victims on a regular basis and their understanding of the depth of the spiritual wound is much deeper. They don’t seem to have that anxiety or fear of being confronted with devastating news that are about to be published.

The independent commission that they have presented will come up with numbers higher than what we have seen in other countries thus far. And this will present a devastating reality for the victims first, and also for the disappointed faithful. But the bishops seem to be willing to own this reality, and from there understand what their responsibility is in moving forward. Of course, you can always point the finger towards other institutions, but the French bishops seem to know this is not the way.

The Catholic Church can lead in this reform…

Exactly, if we are honest and committed to safeguarding.

People who know Francis better than I do, seem to believe that he can change the Vatican by inspiring a change of heart in those who work in the Vatican or who are part of the leadership. But this expectation has led to many known faces still retaining their positions. Can the Church reform itself when it comes to sexual abuse when there are so many faces with a looming cloud of doubt over them?

As we see in the discussions in Germany at the moment, people have to own their personal responsibility. We have seen now that one of the bishops in the U.S. who was accused of not following Church procedure, was asked to step down following the procedures of Vos estis lux mundi [You are the light of the world].

These are encouraging steps that don’t depend only on a change of heart, which I have always favored, because law in itself is too little. You need both: change of law and change of mentality. This pope, at least with Come una madre amorevole [As a loving Mother], with Vos estis, the abolition of the pontifical secret on these cases, has made lasting changes. The introduction of “vulnerable adults” into Church law means that as a CCP we couldn’t continue work only in child protection anymore. We need to include also the dignity and care for e.g. a seminarian who is exploited by the Rector or a 35-year-old laywoman who goes to a priest for spiritual direction because she’s fighting with her husband.