Ever since the lid was blown off the top of the global clerical sexual abuse scandal, church institutions have found themselves on the defensive. Pope Francis’ 2019 global summit of bishops on abuse – the first of its kind – was a belated first step towards a more proactive and coordinated church-wide approach.
The lesson has sunk in that abuse is not going to magically disappear. Tackling abuse in society and in the Church needs a committed and ongoing response. To that end, a new body that will study the root causes of abuse and how safeguarding measures can be made more effective has been established in Rome.
The “Institute of Anthropology: Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care” was ratified by the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education on 15 April and is to carry out pioneering research and formation in this field. It will be a faculty within the Pontifical Gregorian University, with its own academic staff, and it will be able to award degrees and doctorates.
The institute will take over the work of the Centre for Child Protection, established at the Greg almost a decade ago under the leadership of Fr Hans Zollner SJ, one of the Church’s leading safeguarding experts. It has been teaching diplomas in safeguarding, which the new institute will continue to offer.
Fr Zollner, a psychologist and theologian, told The Tablet the decision to set up an anthropological institute was prompted by the disturbing realisation that abuse is “a universal and historical phenomenon”. He pointed to the new dimensions of abuse exposed by the MeToo movement and the revelations of abuse by members of United Nations peacekeeping forces and by some overseas aid workers.
In the Church, Fr Zollner explained, the focus is now moving to addressing the abuse of women, including religious sisters, and “spiritual abuse” and coercive control and abuse of power in religious institutions.
“Whoever thinks [abuse] is going away in a few years’ time is misled,” he said. “This is a systemic challenge, which we cannot fix just through introducing guidelines here and there. It needs an understanding of safeguarding by design, not like an app that you switch on or off as you need it. This is central to the mission of the Church.”
Fr Zollner said he wants the new institute to be a “channel of communication and a focus point of networking” and he hopes it will make a contribution through joint research and work with other institutions.
“People thought you deal with abuse through psychology and canon law, but not need to bring in philosophy, theology, social science and historical backgrounds. What are the concepts that underpin safeguarding? Surprisingly, we have very little clarity on this. Yes, once measures are implemented, cases of abuse diminish but from a research standpoint we don’t have a clear clue yet what is working well and what is less effective.”
He went on: “One of the challenges is that both in the Church and society, once you start to talk about the deeper issues around prevention, protection and safeguarding, people shy away from them. It is so difficult to bear for anybody to talk about the sexual abuse of a vulnerable person as a universal and historical phenomenon. You have this violence that has an anthropological reality in all cultures.”
The institute will also work with the recently-established Rome-based Spes et Salus (Hope and Healing) foundation to support abuse survivors first revealed by Fr Zollner in The Tablet last year. It is being established with the help of a €500,000 (£435,000) donation from the personal funds of Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich.
After years of denying, mismanaging or trying to wash its hands of the problem of abuse, the new institute shows the Church is, at last, offering a different approach, based on listening and learning.