Courageous Conversation: In Discussion Led by Survivors, Vatican Advisor Hans Zollner, SJ, Weighs in on Abuse in the Church

By Anselma Dolcich-Ashley
Guest Writer

Last week, Awake hosted Fr. Hans Zollner, SJ, director of the safeguarding institute of the Pontifical Gregorian University and advisor to Pope Francis, for an honest conversation with clergy abuse survivors Esther Harber and Mike Koplinka-Loher. A recording of this event, edited for length, is available below.

Harber, who experienced spiritual abuse and sexual assault by a Catholic priest in her twenties and volunteers as Awake’s Survivor Circle Coordinator, opened the conversation by asking Zollner about the widespread perception that abuse in the Church is a problem of the past. “Of course, that is not true,” the German Jesuit said. “Surely we are just at the beginning; it’s far from over and we have not even begun to talk about abuse.” Zollner added that in many places sexuality as a topic “is taboo, even more so sexual misbehavior, and most of all that of clergy.” Even in countries like the United States, where clergy abuse has been in the public eye for decades, we “have not really reached the bottom,” he said, and fully grappled with the effects of abuse on survivors themselves as well as their families and others in the community wounded by this crisis.

Zollner is founder and president of the Institute of Anthropology Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, an academic body focused on educating church leaders from around the world to safeguard against abuse. Since 2014, he has also been a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, an advisory body to Pope Francis.

The day after Awake’s event, Zollner was announced as consultant to the Diocese of Rome’s new office for the protection of minors and vulnerable people. The launch of this office is one of several changes introduced by Pope Francis in his recent apostolic constitution In Ecclesiarum Communione.

“A Safe Haven”

When the conversation turned to the ways that many victim-survivors have experienced shaming, indifference, or defensive responses from Church leaders, Zollner said that people disclosing abuse “need to be accepted and listened to. We teach that the Church should be a safe haven, welcoming especially those who have been wounded, especially those wounded within the Church, in a manner that is emotionally and empathetically appropriate.” To do so, Catholics need “an open ear, mind, and heart to be present to the survivor.”

Zollner, who is a psychologist and licensed psychotherapist, described the first time he accompanied a survivor of sexual abuse, when he was a chaplain at a public university in Munich, before his ordination and psychology training. A young woman came to him, very upset, describing that she had been abused by her father. “I just tried to be with the person and … not to make it worse,” Zollner explained.

“The Catholic Church should be at the forefront of helping people understand what it means to be ‘survivor-centered,’ but we are far from that goal,” Zollner said. Church representatives may too often take their cues from some lawyers, who warn that sitting down with and listening to survivors exposes the Church to legal risk. 

Power in the Church

Mike Koplinka-Loehr, a facilitator of one of Awake’s Survivor Circles, spoke about how his experience of being abused by a priest as a teenager and young adult was made possible in part by the imbalance of power between clergy and laity. He noted that the conversation with Zollner was aiming for something different. “I think we all agreed before this conversation that we’re going to seek the equal humanity of everyone involved in this dialogue so that we can interrupt that power imbalance,” Koplinka-Loehr said.

Zollner acknowledged that the power imbalance in the Church has indeed been a “frequent means of abusing others,” in a range of ways, from sexual abuse to cases of supervisor-employee harassment. Zollner added that despite being “a central human reality,” the topic of power has received little attention in the Church, and he believes the Church could benefit from being more open and transparent about how power operates. “What does Church power look like, what should its exercise lead to, and how can we avoid the abuse of power especially within the Church?” Zollner asked.

The conferral of sacred power at ordination can give rise to a mentality that priests are holier than others and can do whatever they wish. “It’s just astounding, for example, that we have no spirituality of power in the Church,” he said, which could provide guidance to both clergy and laity. “How can powerful people like priests, bishops, and provincials give up that type of omnipotent demeanor,” he asked, and receive direction regarding the exercise of power and authority?

Zollner spoke multiple times about Church law, particularly the papal directive Vos Estis Lux Mundi, which establishes norms to address sexual abuse and to hold bishops accountable for their actions. While Vos Estis is promising, its application “is too slow and inconsistent,” he said. Zollner finds the definition of “vulnerable person” used in Vos Estis to be so broad that it is unhelpful. Instead, he prefers the term “the person at risk” or “the situation at risk.” Regardless of definitions, Zollner says, “How can church law really make sense of the actual nature of what’s going on, and really protect people?”

The Conversation Continues. Join Us!
Don’t miss Part 2 of the Courageous Conversation, 7 pm Central on Thursday, March 9. Attendees will break into small groups to discuss the ideas discussed in Part 1. To join us, please complete the registration for Part 2 and watch the video recording before you attend. See you on Thursday! 

Establishing Trust and Places to Listen

For victim-survivors to come forward and disclose their abuse, trust is essential, Zollner said, and is built through specific moments, relationships, or settings that provide safety and opportunity for survivors to share their stories. If trust is not built, “there is a huge risk of [victim-survivors] being retraumatized.” He envisions organizations in the Church providing spaces where “according to the pace of your soul, of your understanding, you find words for something for which you have no words,” he said. “Do little steps of trust… then more and more engage in as much as you would like to share.” Zollner also calls on church organizations to find the courage to retool their ministries to serve current needs. “What is the mission of the Catholic Church today?” he asked. “Today it is our mission to listen to survivors, and that means investment of space, money, personnel, formation.” Zollner reflected that meeting with and accompanying survivors has changed him and taught him that each survivor has their own unique experience.

To effect change, Zollner suggested concentrating on what is doable in the moment. Recognizing that “mentalities change slowly, [sometimes] over centuries, made me very humble. As the Catholic Church we are so slow,” he acknowledged. That said, Zollner finds hope in schools, universities, and other places of formation. Over time, “changing the future leadership of the Church is the most important contribution” that places of learning can make to encourage positive change to “get really entrenched.”

Zollner also encouraged victim-survivors to “be aware of how much you have already achieved, and to value what you are, who you are, and where you are on the journey. I hope you can focus on and value what you’ve already done through your own capacities, energy, and persistence. Be aware that God is working in that.”

Current Challenges

Zollner took several anonymous questions from survivors in the audience, and when asked about the many survivors who feel that their cases have been mishandled, he encouraged them to “document everything.” He added that they can also seek recourse, under Vos Estis, to the next level of church governance. Problems may arise, however, when responsible parties at different levels fall short in their responsibilities. He noted there is no noun in Romance languages which is the direct equivalent of the English word “accountability.” In a global church with many languages, it is crucial to make the understanding of accountability function in a real way, he said.

Another problem in the inconsistent application of Vos Estis is that “we don’t have the transparency, the other side of the coin” of accountability, Zollner said. Some wish to preserve the good name of a bishop who has been removed, but he sees this mindset as fundamentally irrational. “There are deeply rooted defense mechanisms” at play, but “by pretending to protect the reputation, you harm the reputation much more. I see an anxiety, a lack of courage to accept mistakes, and an image” of church authorities as perfect. “I would also say it is a lack of faith, because in faith we say, ‘we are sinners,’” he added.

Other survivors asked about spiritual abuse, which Zollner defined as exercising power “in a disrespectful and harmful way, [with] spiritual phrases such as ‘this is the will of God’, ‘I am the representative of God’, ‘if you criticize me you go against God,’ or something like that.” Zollner advocates evaluative feedback for religious leaders, shared responsibility, and periodic changes in leadership.

As the event concluded, Awake Executive Director Sara Larson offered thanks to Zollner for taking part in the conversation. “I hear you understanding these issues and realizing that we still have a serious problem in the Church, and I really appreciate that,” she said. “On behalf of all of the survivors here and all those that we speak to through Awake, we ask you to keep working, keep pushing, and keep speaking this in every place of power that you have access to that we do not.”

Editor’s Note: Fr. Hans Zollner agreed to answer, in writing, a few additional questions posed by survivors in the audience during the Courageous Conversation. His answers to these questions are found here.

Anselma Dolcich-Ashley is a theologian and independent scholar from South Bend, Indiana. She has studied the meaning of moral norms as applied in the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. She appreciates working with Awake to accompany others, to encounter the human face of the abuse crisis, and to participate in a compassionate Catholic community.

One thought on “Courageous Conversation: In Discussion Led by Survivors, Vatican Advisor Hans Zollner, SJ, Weighs in on Abuse in the Church

  1. i thought the group w/Fr. Zollner was very informative, also listening to the other speakers was great too

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