ROME (AP) — The Catholic Church’s foremost research institute studying sexual abuse of minors is expanding its mandate to also include the sexual and spiritual abuse of adults, evidence of the Vatican’s increasing awareness that children aren’t the only victims of clergy who abuse their power and authority.
The Rev. Hans Zollner, one of Pope Francis’ top advisers on abuse, said the institute’s broader scope reflected lessons from the #MeToo movement, the pope’s own recognition that nuns and seminarians can be abused by their superiors, and evidence that systemic and structural problems in the church have allowed abuse to fester.
“We cannot only look at individual problems anymore. We need also to look into the institutional conditions that promote [abuse] or block a safe environment,” Zollner told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
He spoke to the AP on the eve of the official launch of the new safeguarding institute at the Pontifical Gregorian University. The institute incorporates the decade-old Centre for Child Protection and, as a Vatican-sanctioned anthropology department, can now award academic degrees, have its own dedicated faculty and partner on equal footing with other universities.
The new institute’s official name is the Institute of Anthropology, Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care, or IADC.
The institute’s focus beyond just child protection is significant given the Vatican tends to develop policies by relying on the academic research and international conferences of its pontifical universities to provide the foundations for decisions taken higher up in the chain of command.
For Zollner, the growth of a full-fledged safeguarding institute is a development more than a decade in the making, and yet has still been met with resistance.
“I have always been struggling with the question, ’Why do we in the church struggle to accept the existence of abuse among us committed by clergy? Why is it so difficult to accept that, to see that reality?’ Because you have still people who deny that reality and say, ‘We don’t have cases,’” he said.
Zollner said the idea to broaden the scope of study came after a 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report exposed how a series of bishops in the U.S. state systematically covered up for abusive priests. Subsequent investigative reports into clergy abuse, including in Zollner’s native Germany and most recently France, identified the same systemic and structural problems.
Also in 2018, the Vatican began its investigation of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, an American archbishop who was eventually defrocked by Francis after the Vatican determined he sexually abused minors as well as adult seminarians under his authority.
Zollner stressed that the new institute was by no means pushing aside its key focus on child protection, calling the sexual abuse of children “the most horrific thing you can think of.”
But the expanded focus will allow for the study of issues that previously were outside the center’s original scope, he said, such as the spiritual abuse of adults by leaders of new religious movements, or the institutional and structural factors within the church that facilitated abuse.
“If, as we have seen in numerous reports now, there is a systemic failure of acting according to your own norms and standards, then the question doesn’t concern only this priest who is an abuser or that bishop who has covered up,” he said. “The question that comes to the fore is the question, ‘Is the system trustworthy?’ And that is the question that we have to deal with.”
Zollner founded the Centre for Child Protection in 2012, first in the archdiocese of Munich and then based at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. In its nearly decade-long existence, 140 students have completed a six-month safeguarding training certificate program at the center, and more than a dozen have gone onto masters and doctorate-level studies. Some 4,500 people also have been trained via a blended learning program with partner institutions.
Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean abuse survivor whom Francis recently appointed to join Zollner on the pontifical child protection commission, said he had seen the fruits of the Gregorian’s work and praised the institute’s expanded mandate to also include vulnerable adults.
“It’s important to have people that have a strong formation in human dignity and who know how to treat survivors and understand survivors and work on safeguarding,” he said in a video for the official launch.
Zollner said discussion was underway in the Vatican on how to define “vulnerable person,” because the Vatican itself is somewhat split on the issue and whether someone can be considered vulnerable even temporarily.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handles cases of abuse involving minors, considers someone over 18 who is “habitually” impaired and cannot reason as equivalent to a minor and therefore under its jurisdiction.
Yet a new procedural law introduced in 2019 expanded the concept beyond a “habitual” situation of vulnerability to people “even occasionally” experiencing limits to their ability to understand or resist a sexual act.
Where the Vatican ends with the definition could determine if the church will sanction a priest, for example, who takes sexual advantage of a woman during spiritual direction, when she is experiencing a temporary period of emotional or psychological vulnerability, rather than considering the encounter consensual.
“I know that there is a conversation going on, but I’m not involved in that, with regard to what the definition of vulnerable adult, and I would expect that this includes also the issue of spiritual abuse because this is obviously part of abuse of an adult person,” Zollner said.
And the question of spiritual abuse isn’t just dealing with individual cases, he added, but “what do we need to do to train spiritual directors, for example, and persons in authority how they exercise their power.”