Vatican-backed sexual abuse research institute expands mandate

ROME (AP) – The Catholic Church’s leading research institute studying child sexual abuse expands its mandate to also include adult sexual and spiritual abuse, evidence of the Vatican’s growing awareness that children are not not the only victims of the clergy who abuse their power and authority.

Reverend Hans Zollner, one of Pope Francis’ main advisers on abuse, said the institute’s broader reach reflects the lessons of the #MeToo movement, the Pope’s own recognition that nuns and seminarians can be. mistreated by their superiors, and evidence that systemic and structural problems in the church have allowed the abuse to escalate.

“We can no longer limit ourselves to individual problems. We also need to look at the institutional conditions that promote (abuse) or block a safe environment, ”Zollner told The Associated Press Wednesday.

He addressed the AP on the eve of the official launch of the new safeguarding institute at the Pontifical Gregorian University. The institute integrates the ten-year-old Child Welfare Center and, as a Vatican sanctioned anthropology department, can now award university degrees, have its own dedicated faculty and partner on a foundation. equality with other universities.

The official name of the new institute is the Institute of Anthropology, Interdisciplinary Studies in Human Dignity and Care, or IADC.

The institute’s goal beyond mere child protection is important given that the Vatican tends to develop policies by drawing on academic research and the international conferences of its pontifical universities to lay the groundwork for basis for decisions taken higher in the chain of command.

For Zollner, the growth of a fully-fledged safeguarding institute has been an ongoing development for over a decade, and yet it still faces resistance.

“I have always grappled with the question, ‘Why in the church do we struggle to accept the existence of abuse among us by the clergy? Why is it so hard to accept this, to see this reality? Because there are still people who deny this reality and say, ‘We have no cases’, ”he said.

Zollner said the idea to expand the scope of the study came after a 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report revealed how a series of U.S. state bishops systematically covered up abusive priests. Subsequent investigative reports into clergy abuse, including in Zollner’s native Germany and more recently in France, identified the same systemic and structural issues.

Also in 2018, the Vatican began its investigation into ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, an American archbishop who was ultimately defrocked by Francis after the Vatican determined he had sexually assaulted minors as well as adult seminarians under his rule. authority.

Zollner stressed that the new institute was by no means sidelining its primary focus on child protection, calling child sexual abuse “the most horrible thing you can think of.”

But the expanded focus will allow for the study of issues that were previously outside the centre’s original scope, he said, such as spiritual abuse of adults by leaders of new religious movements, or postmen. institutional and structural within the church that facilitated the abuse. .

“If, as we have seen in many reports now, there is a systemic failure to act according to your own norms and standards, then the issue is not just about which priest who is an abuser or which bishop is is covered, ”he said. “The question that comes to the fore is the question ‘Is the system trustworthy?’ And that is the question we have to face.

Zollner founded the Center for Child Welfare in 2012, first in the Archdiocese of Munich and then based at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. During its nearly ten-year existence, 140 students have completed a six-month safeguarding training certificate program at the center, and more than a dozen have completed master’s and doctoral studies. Some 4,500 people were also trained through a blended learning program with partner institutions.

Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean abuse survivor who Francis recently appointed to join Zollner on the Pontifical Child Welfare Commission, said he has seen the fruits of the Gregorian’s labor and praised the expanded mandate of the institute to also include vulnerable adults.

“It’s important to have people who have a solid background in human dignity and who know how to treat survivors, understand survivors and work to save,” he said in a video for the official launch.

Zollner said a discussion was underway in the Vatican on how to define a “vulnerable person”, since the Vatican itself is somewhat divided on the issue and whether someone can be considered vulnerable, even temporarily.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which deals with cases of abuse involving minors, considers a person over the age of 18 who is “usually” disabled and cannot reason as equivalent to a minor and therefore under its jurisdiction.

Yet a new procedural law introduced in 2019 has broadened the concept beyond a “usual” situation of vulnerability to people who “even occasionally” experience limits to their ability to understand or resist a sexual act.

Where the Vatican ends with the definition, one might consider whether the church will sanction a priest, for example, who sexually takes advantage of a woman during spiritual direction, when she is experiencing a temporary period of emotional or psychological vulnerability, rather than to consider the consensual meeting.

“I know there is a conversation going on, but I’m not involved in that, as far as the definition of vulnerable adult goes, and I would expect that to include the issue of abuse as well. spiritual because that’s obviously part of adult abuse, ”Zollner said.

And the issue of spiritual abuse is not just about individual cases, he added, but “what do we need to do to train spiritual directors, for example, and people in positions of authority on how which they exercise their power “.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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