In this safeguarding podcast we talk with Father Zollner of the Vatican about the Pope’s 2017 Declaration of Rome which focussed on protecting children online. We discuss the Centre for Child Protection within the Vatican, the child abuse track record of the Roman Catholic church, whether a perpetrator can be a true Roman Catholic, the nature of Confession and what an 11th Commandment might be for the internet age.
A lightly edited for legibility transcript is provided below for those that can’t make use of podcasts, or for those that prefer to read.
Welcome to another edition of the SafeToNet Foundation’s safeguarding podcast where we talk about all things to do with safeguarding children in the online and digital context.
The online digital context comprises three areas, technology, law and ethics and culture, with child safeguarding right in the centre of this Venn diagram. And it encompasses all stakeholders between a child using a smartphone and the content or person online that they are interacting with.
There is a strong and essential relationship between ethics and culture and religion. And one of the largest and most influential religions is that of the Roman Catholic church. And joining me on the line from the Vatican is Father Zollner.
Welcome to the podcast Father Zollner. Can you give us a brief resume, please have yourself and the work that you and your team does?
Yes, I’m a German Jesuit and I work at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome since 17 years. I am Doctorate in Theology and I have Degrees in Psychology. I’m a licensed Psychologist and Psychotherapist.
I am the President of the Centre for Child Protection of this university, which was founded in 2012 and since then we have been working with programs for training of personnel of all kinds of institutions, mainly in the Church, but also outside in the preparation of safeguarding officers, of personnel that are employed in a different ways and in different capacities, so that those institutions are kept safer.
We have a variety of backgrounds represented in the team. We are psychologists, theologians, philosophers, social scientists and media communication experts. So we are, I think very well equipped to deal with the very complex issue that is the safeguarding of minors in a very complex world, in very complex institutions and in an evolving society for example, especially with regard to the media and the social communication aspect.
Yes. Okay. Now I think you’re also involved with the Child Dignity Alliance. In what way?
The Child Dignity Alliance grew out of a Congress in 2017 in October, exactly two years ago now. That was hosted at the Pontifical Gregorian University and was co-organized with the Centre for Child Protection of the university with the “We Protect” initiative of the UK government at that time, with Telephone Arturo, which is a child helpline for children in Italy, and with other institutions, and we had people from all kinds of professions and qualifications at the Congress.
We had the top notch from the Ivy league professors who do research in safeguarding minors online. We had law enforcement, Europol and we had UNICEF and other UN organisations represented and then the big companies were here, Facebook, Google, et cetera, had representatives present as well as other NGOs and an interreligious delegation from different parts of the world and from different faith communities and denominations.
The Alliance is a result of that Congress that was concluded in October 2017 with an audience that we had with the Holy Father and his speech on that occasion. And since then we have been working in a number of working groups that were loosely connected in this Child Dignity Alliance and that deal with different aspects of this really complex issue.
Okay. Now in 2017, his Holiness the Pope issued a Declaration of Rome to combat child sexual exploitation. In general terms, what are Declarations of Rome? What is their purpose?
This declaration is quite unique as it was approved by the participants of the Congress and then it was handed over to the Holy Father. Then in this declaration, the participants that include all those groups that I’ve mentioned before, commit themselves to work together for a safer world for children and for all those who are particularly vulnerable and with regards to the digital world.
The Pope responded with a speech to that declaration. He made many very valid points and we see that this has been very well received in the faith communities, but also way beyond the political sphere. It has become a point of reference as well as in some areas of research, but also, and on the side of the companies, the big companies, because the Pope called on them and reminded them of their core responsibility in keeping the digital, the virtual reality, a safe place for children.
Yes. Now, this particular Declaration of Rome has 13 points, which cover a lot of ground. It’s very broad in scope and unfortunately we don’t have time to go through each one in detail. Can you provide a succinct, punchy summary of its content, aims and objectives? I know you’ve referred to reminding the stakeholders of their duties, but what specific results do you want to see as a result of the Declaration of Rome?
Now, I think there is certainly one important point beyond the 13 points and that was for me the most important outcome of the meeting itself, which then produced this Declaration. And that is until then 2017 the law enforcement, the researchers, NGOs, and international bodies like UNICEF, worked very much like in silos, and the major, let me say, by-product beyond all the different features we heard, all what was presented in the workshops during the conference were certainly important and valid in itself. But I thought that there was something beyond that and that was, this was produced not by one of those groups, not by one entity.
It was a common effort and it was something that showed for me for the first time that when we work together, when we bring all the stakeholders together in this work, and in the responsibilities with carry for that, and when we collaborate beyond the boundaries of politics or religion or this research subject or another, we can really make a difference.
We don’t need to run behind the developments of technology only, but we can make a step forward and somehow at least try to understand what is going on in the digital world and how we can influence it so that we come to something, to a reality, where children and other vulnerable people are not exposed to high risks.
So this creation of an Alliance that brought together all these players in the field, very important players, that is for me, let me say beyond the single  points [of the Declaration], that was the most important outcome.
Then, to the single points [of the Declaration], I think it is important to realize that we didn’t see the internet as a monster. Yes, there are enormous challenges and many dramatic dangers like bullying and harassment and sextortion, beyond the number of sexual images of children and youth that has reached now a dissemination that is just astonishing. But we also realize that the internet of course has many extremely valid positive signs and we don’t want to condemn that.
However, especially with regard to young people, we must work together so that there are positive and empowering solutions for all so that the safe access to the internet enhances education, communication and relationships and connections between young people and beyond.
Yes. Point 4 of the Declaration of Rome is calling for leaders of technology companies to commit to the development and implementation of new tools and technologies to attack the proliferation of sex abuse images on the internet. Now, most of these are after the fact. Once you’ve produced an image, the abuse has taken place and the damage has already been done. Could tech be moved closer to the source?
For example, when you watch the Apple keynote speeches where they launch their latest iPhone, we just had one recently with the launch of the iPhone 11, where they describe all of the sophistication of their cameras, their use of neural networks, their use of machine learning, all of these things are there to create better images, but are we at a stage where the camera technology itself could recognize the image as being of a naked child and it disables itself? It turns itself off. The camera is able to decide not to allow those images to be taken.
Yes, exactly. I think this is our goal, and this is something that companies should be really challenged about. One of our keynote speakers at the Congress in 2017 is Julie Inman Grant, the Australian eSafety Commissioner, the responsible person for the Australian government, who I met in Melbourne in June, who has launched a very important idea and promotes that, and that would really address the issue that you have adjust mentioned.
And that is, can we ask, can we demand that companies to develop new devices that are safe by design. By this you mean for example, that you build a camera, or you build other technological means that help that the images of sexual abuse are detected or cannot even be taken.
So this is something where the technological side needs to be developed a lot, which would also lead to something which doesn’t pertain only to the software or to the hardware of such a device, but even before that, the consideration how artificial intelligence can help us to detect those images and to find out where there are dangers of proliferation and dissemination of that.
Okay. Now the Centre for Child Protection, which you are president of, the CCP, has five guiding principles; Victims first, a Christian view of the human person, Cultural sensitivity, a Multidisciplinary approach, and also Spirituality. And in the last one, spirituality, you say that “We envisage safeguarding as a spiritual matter that directs us in our theological reflection and the faith based response”. Safeguarding as a spiritual matter sounds very interesting indeed. What do you mean by that?
We mean that people of all faith, and we are of a Christian faith, need to realize that and need to live up to the fact that, if you believe in God and if you believe in Creation and if we believe that human beings are created in the image of God, there is no bigger commandment than to love one’s neighbour as we love God and ourselves. But this implies also that we do everything so that our neighbours are safe and can live a dignified life.
So I believe that when we talk about spirituality, it means that it is the outlook on life and the outlook on relationships, on how we deal with people, how we try to work so that people are not exploited in any way. And that from the inside, the motivation comes also from our own experience of being created, being loved and being held every day by God.
So our commandment that we have received from Jesus is that we care for others more than for ourselves, but on the basis of knowing and experiencing that we are loved by God himself. So I think this is one of the aspects of the spirituality that is implied. If you consider safeguarding of the whole creation, of which Pope Francis has reminded us so many times, that of course includes also all human beings and especially the ones who are more in danger of being exploited and being abused.
Yes, the Centre for Child Protection has put forward a proposal for a research program that will do three things, one of which is to establish an understanding of the problem of child sexual abuse. The second one is to systematically identify and review promising efforts of prevention of child sexual abuse. And thirdly, to evaluate the feasibility and efficacy of promising efforts, which all sounds great, but it all sounds so familiar. It sounds like it’s all been done before. So what’s different about your proposal?
Now our proposal goes especially in the direction to verify and what is really working in terms of safeguarding. All of us who work in this field do something, and all who are engaged in this and do this with the best of intentions. However, until now we have very little data on what is really effective in safeguarding programs, and that includes the digital world as well as the real world if you wish.
So our purpose is to help understand where and how programs for safeguarding can be tailored according to the context, according to the specific group which this is addressed, so that it becomes more efficient. Unfortunately, it looks as if we are now watering the lawn and we just have lots of litres of water there and we don’t know exactly where we should put it so that we really produce the best fruits and the best outcomes. So this is one of the specific goals of this proposal.
Okay. So is this what you mean by saying “…child sexual abuse prevention policies, practices and strategies have proliferated in the past five years, yet few of these efforts have been evaluated for feasibility, scalability, or effectiveness”? Which actually seems quite extraordinary when you think about it.
Yes and we don’t even know how to evaluate that. So our purpose in this grant request is that we can come up with instruments that would prove whether a program is more effective than others and what makes it more effective than others. In the scientific world we have very little knowledge about that, at least in on the empirical side.
As part of the proposal for this research, you say that “…estimates of child sexual abuse victimization are well established in many parts of the world, but that contrasts with a dearth of information on the prevalence of child sexual abuse perpetration, accurate estimates of which exist only for one high income country”. So are you saying that these different sides of the same coin, victimization and perpetration, need but don’t have consistent measures or research?
Yes. In all parts of the world, even in those where we have more resources and more academic institutions or government institutions involved in finding out what is the real prevalence of child sexual abuse, we talk about huge numbers of unknown perpetration, of unreported perpetration, of crimes.
In the scientific world there is one German word that is used to describe the huge dark area and that is “Dunkelfeld” which means literally, the “dark field”. Some people say that for one case of child sexual abuse that is perpetrated and reported, you can count five more that are not reported, and that pertains to at least those countries where we have any clue and any number of reliable reporting.
But just two months ago I was in three Southern African countries and at least in two of them, I mean I have seen with my own eyes that you would have enormous difficulties to gather any kind of reliable information about the scale of child sexual abuse that happens within the traditional cultural context that is condoned, and sometimes there is not even a sense of difficulty with that, because it is said that it is a cultural custom so you can’t even challenge that, at least for some tribes and for some regions there.
Now I am a journalist and so I am obliged I think to ask you about this. There will be a cohort of people who will listen to this podcast who will have their doubts about what you’re saying. They will point to the child abuse scandals in recent years and say that the Roman Catholic church doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to safeguarding children from sexual predators. What would your response be to these people Father Zollner?
Yes, of course. I would agree with that, that there is no doubt that within the Catholic church there have been crimes committed by clergy, committed by others, not clergy, on the side of abuse, perpetration of crimes, as well as on the side of coverup. No doubt about that.
I would also say that the Catholic church has come a long way now. We are, over the last 10 15 years, I would say there has been a lot of development and I personally can say from my experience in 60 countries on all continents of the globe that I see that this huge ship that the Catholic church is, is turning towards the direction of real commitment to safeguarding.
I can certainly say that in some parts of the world, the Catholic church is leading the process where you have legal systems for other circumstances like predominance of certain cultures where the Catholic church is certainly on the forefront of working for the safety and the dignity of children.
We are as the Catholic church, the biggest religious community on the planet, we have a very mixed picture even now, and I certainly agree with the perception that so much harm, so much grievous hurt has been brought about by members of this faith community. But I can also say, at least from my own experience and working with many, many people around the globe, that this commitment to a safer church is really growing and it is at least to some extent already effective.
Excellent. That’s great to hear. Now, sorrow for sin, or repentance, is often said to have two aspects, one backwards and one forwards. Looking back, the penitent regrets, he detests the sin, and looking forward he determines to avoid it. Is this work you’re doing a form of institutional repentance?
Yes, probably it is, effectively it is a part of that, although I think it is a small part of it because as a Catholic church we have to own the harm and the hurt and the destruction of lives that have been brought about and we are struggling with that because there’s still people in some quarters in the Church think that this is something that didn’t happen in the countries and so forth and they are not responsible for that.
But as a community that says that we are one Church, we also need to take our share in that process of repentance and confession of the sins and the crimes that have been committed and contributing to doing justice to those who have been harmed so grievously. Now our effort mainly, however, in the Centre for Child Protection of course, and all the safeguarding is to do whatever can be done so that today and tomorrow children are safer when they are on church premises and church activities and so forth.
You mentioned confession, so if a member of your congregation during confession discloses that he or indeed she has been abusing children as perhaps a first step towards repentance, what are the duties of the clergy in this respect?
The priest who hears a confession needs to tell the person that he or she needs to report him or herself to the police. I mean, it depends if it is an ongoing abuse that is happening now, then that is all the more urgent [than] when the abuse has happened 30, 50 years ago, that is still the case that the priest has to convince the person to report him or herself to the police.
The priest himself wouldn’t report?
The priest is not allowed to report because we have the Seal of Confession that is absolute, and it does prohibit the priest to tell anything if a perpetrator comes with the intention to confess. But for example, there is no obligation to absolve the person, there is no duty on the part of the priest to tell the perpetrator that this is okay now, because he has tried to confess it. No to the contrary.
I always tell when I teach that matter that priests are not obligated to give the absolution if they have doubts about the honesty of the confession. So, then I would also say I would try to find out and to press the person to meet outside the confession so that I can also be free to report to police and to church authorities about the facts. So this is the position.
Many people think that lots of perpetrators come to confess. I mean, in 24 years now of priesthood, I’ve never had any single confession of any perpetrator I can say, and almost all priests that I have spoken with a repeat the same, except those who work in prison.
Okay. Now the word paedophile is often used to describe a sexual predator, but this can be a little bit confusing because of the similarity of the word “phile” and “philio”, philio being one form of love, brotherly love. The other two forms of love are Eros, which is erotic love and Agape, which is self-giving love selflessness, and Jesus is held as the supreme example of this. Should we banish the word “Paedophile”, and use harder, more direct terms such as sexual predator or sexual abuser?
I would be very much in favour of that, also because the word paedophile is misleading in the public sphere. In fact, most abuse, sexual abuse of minors of age, is not committed with regard to children and the very word Paedophile, comes from the [ancient] Greek meaning “the young boy”, actually before puberty. But most abuse, at least in numbers, seems to happen with adolescent boys and girls.
And so when you read in papers, when you hear in discussions, mostly the word paedophile, then that is highly misleading, which is harmful especially in the in the public discussion, because people think that most perpetrators of child sexual abuse are sick people and paedophiles are by definition, by psychiatric definition, they are sick people but most abuses of minors are not diagnosable in a psychiatric use of the term.
They have other personality dynamics that bring them to abuse minors, but psychiatrists would not put them into a psychiatry clinic or would not give them medication. So this term is not helpful at all. However, how do you change the public usage if it is so widespread as we see it now? Even in the diagnostic and statistical manual of the Psychiatric Association of the United States, the term used to denote that disease is called “paedophilic disorder”. So you see even in science and in medicine, the term is used. I don’t know how we could turn that around and avoid the term completely.
Indeed, it sounds like a huge problem. I read a very interesting blog post on the CCP’s website and the author, which may have been you actually, I’m not sure who the author was, says, “It seems like society underestimates the power of the internet and the rate at which evil can spread in its innumerable forms”. Evil can be defined as ungodly or irreligious. It’s the very opposite of all the values of your faith. Can someone who attends Mass, takes the Holy Sacrament, goes to Confession even, and yet commits these evil acts be a true Roman Catholic or are they just acting a part? It’s a surface gloss with a rotten core?
Yes, of course. As human beings, be it Catholics, Christians in general, any believer, we, all of us, are caught in the tension between what we promise, what we strive for and what we really do. Jesus has come precisely to call the sinners, not the perfect ones and those bringing him to death, those who believed that they were the perfect ones.
This is not to condone sins or crimes, but human reality is that evil will always be here. And this is another current in the discussion that I really find quite disturbing, that people think with even more perfect measures and even more perfect technology and even more perfect guidelines and laws we will do away with evil. I find this is a very dangerous illusion.
Illusion consists in the fact that in human beings there are good sides and there are very bad and evil sides and history and our present day situation proves this day after day and hour after hour. So what we can do is to really engage as Christians, as Catholics, as religious, as people of any kind of conviction for life, that we do our best, that we strive to be more respectful and more responsible.
Yes. Now talking about evil, if these acts are evil and the Devil is defined as the supreme spirit of evil, is this abuse of children, the Devil’s work?
Evil is a reality that is impossible to describe. Ultimately evil is committed by human beings. Evil deeds are committed by human beings. Where the motivation for that comes from, nobody really ultimately knows. How much is it the responsibility of oneself for this? What are the contributing factors in the situation, in the family history and whatsoever?
I think we need to realize that that evil is something that we cannot only pinpoint, we cannot point the finger to, and say here we have the source and here we have the solution. I think again that would be dangerous because then we would miss the complexity and the different roots of any kind of evil and bad behaviour.
You see that sometimes evil deeds are committed that are beyond understanding. Why, why would any human being do that to another human being? So there are aspects that go beyond our understanding and our reason. I think we need to realize that we are all of us, we are somehow unable to detect the concrete roots of what is going on.
Yes. I was discussing this with a friend of mine who has very strong Christian faith and he described Hell to me as being “the absence of God”. When this abuse happens, is God absent at that moment and is this a worldly expression of Hell?
Yes. This is how many survivors and victims of abuse have described that, that they were crying to God They were desperate. They were fearing annihilation and they experienced God was absent. And that is a reason why we certainly need to admit that this is for some people, a reason why they can’t believe in God, because he’s not intervening in a way that we humanly speaking would expect, especially if there are little children who are crying to him.
On the other hand, there is the image of God, at least according to what Jesus has taught us, what he was preaching about, and what he has shown in his own life, that God, now this is of course the Christian you have of all this, that God is there suffering within the person who is abused.
I mean, let me refer to Elie Wiesel, the Jewish author. I mean he has this story in the concentration camp where some people were hanged publicly and all those prisoners had to watch them struggling for life. Somebody next to him was asking, “Where is God in this?” when he saw this poor person hanging, dangling there and then ultimately dying and Elie says, “God is there in this person who is fighting, struggling for his life and is about to die”.
So I think this is of course the Christian belief that God has shown not only by some signs, but in his own existence as we believe that Jesus is the son of God, that he enters into the passion, into the cross, into the suffering, into the unspeakable night of desperation and loneliness. And that because he gives himself in that very moment of darkness, of complete darkness and the [apparent] absence of God, God is with him and rises him to new life.
Are you optimistic that there’s a solution to this pernicious practice? Will Good, perhaps guided by God, prevail?
I am not optimistic, I’m hopeful, I would call it. I’m hopeful. Otherwise I wouldn’t do what I do and I wouldn’t find the energy and the possibility to continue because you can imagine that day after day I’m confronted with a number of very challenging facts in learning about the misbehaviour and the crimes of people who should have done the contrary to what they do, the resistance on the side of some who really don’t learn in time what is necessary to protect the children.
I’m hopeful because I see many people who are committed to this and I can also say more and more really very strongly and very consistently working towards a safer Church and a safer world.
One final question if I may. We’ve got very deep and quite dark. So I would like to ask a slightly light-hearted question just to end on if that’s okay. If you had the ability to write an 11th Commandment which focused on online child sexual abuse, what would it be?
The 11th commandment should be: “You shall be aware of how you deal with people in the digital world and you shall preserve their dignity and live with them in this virtual world with all the respect that they merit”.
That sounds like a fabulous commandment. Now, there is an incredibly moving video on your website from Marie Collins. I’d like to end by playing out a short extract, that is indeed hopeful. In the meantime, thank you so much Father Zollner for your time. It’s been a real privilege and pleasure to speak with you and I look forward to seeing the results of your research program.
Thank you very much for the conversation and for your questions.
Marie Collins (reproduced with permission)
I left that hospital a very different child than I went into it.
I became quite paranoid and by the time I was 17 I was in need of medical help from my anxieties and I started on antidepressants and sedatives and things like that.
I’ve spent 30 years of my life just struggling to get by day by day, not able to work, not able to have a career and not able to be a proper mother or wife.
And then I got help.
My abuser admitted his abuse and I got some help, I got some therapy to deal with the abuse that happened to me. And what I had seen as all those wasted years were behind me. Life was beginning for me and I was able to enjoy it and I was able to enjoy my family.
But the more people understand about the terrible life effects that can happen to a child who’s been abused, the psychological effects, how it affects the way they see themselves, how they relate to others. All that. People need to be aware of that.
So for me, that’s my reason for trying to speak and trying to help our understanding of this whole horrible issue that is so widespread in our society.