Empathy is the foundation of safeguarding

Interview with international safeguarding expert, Fr Hans Zollner SJ, during his recent visit to Australia to meet with safeguarding delegates from the Jesuit Conference of Asia Pacific (JCAP).


Hypothetically, what conversation would transpire if a 16th century German theologian-professor-reformer suddenly appeared before a 21st century German theologian-professor-reformer? We asked international safeguarding expert, Fr Hans Zollner SJ, how he would explain his work to the late Martin Luther.

Without hesitation, he replied, “I would explain I am engaged in promoting awareness among the Church and beyond the Church that children and vulnerable people are precious and that they need to be protected. Also, that they need to grow and flourish in a safe environment and that this needs conviction, commitment, education and formation.”

Fr Hans Zollner SJ

Fr Zollner is the director of the Institute of Anthropology, Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care (IADC) at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. As a psychologist and psychotherapist, he is one of the Catholic Church’s foremost voices on the safeguarding and protection of minors and vulnerable people from sexual abuse.

In his crucial role within the Church, is one of his starting points the foundational ability to empathise and identify with victims as well? “Absolutely. We need to listen to the voices of survivors and victims of abuse. That is of course a starting point for all our activities in safeguarding. We have set out to address this after the decades in which the news about the Catholic Church and sexual abuse has been out there. The response has been very inconsistent, especially when looking into the survivors’ community and their expectations.”

In that context, how challenging has it been to build a global network of safeguarders with a deep understanding of not just what needs to be done, but also how to do it?

“We try to do what we can, specific to an academic institution, as we are a part of the Pontifical Gregorian University. It is a Jesuit institution founded by Saint Ignatius himself and it was always meant to cater to the whole Catholic world and beyond. We train people in Rome through our diploma and Masters courses and we also have doctoral students. In addition, we have a blended learning programme with online units that we offer to educational institutions and academic institutions worldwide and these need to be complemented by on-site activities.”

In 2020, Fr Zollner was pivotal in setting up the Global Safeguarding Alliance, a voluntary association of institutions, as well as practice-oriented professional schools and individual experts committed to the common goal of safeguarding. His views on spreading the message are clear. “We also have Jesuit partner institutions and we have an annual international safeguarding conference. This is all driven by our awareness that no single organisation can do everything. When we put our heads and our hearts together and work together, we can truly make a difference to our children and our vulnerable people, and also to society at large.”

Fr Hans Zollner SJ (back row, far right), meeting with Australian Provincial, Fr Quyen Vu SJ (front row, 4th from left) and other JCAP delegates at the Safety in Ministry network meeting at St Peter Canisius House in Pymble, NSW.

As a psychologist and a theologian, how did those two aspects of Fr Zollner’s life converge in defining the direction of his work for the past 20 years in the area of safeguarding?

“I was missioned by my Provincial exactly 20 years ago to Rome, to work at the Institute of Psychology at the Gregorian University. I had completed a doctorate in theology but as a psychologist and licenced psychotherapist, I always wanted to work in the accompaniment of people and the spiritual realm in the psychotherapeutic capacity that I have. However, when I came closer into contact with the suffering of those who have been abused within the Church context, it became clear that we need to do everything within our power and within our capabilities so that abuse doesn’t happen in the first place.

“The safeguarding respect grows out of an awareness that these egregious crimes have the potential to destroy people’s lives. One can also say a number of persons who have gone through terrible trauma really have found a way to cope with that anxiety or that rage or despair quite well. But we need to calibrate our interventions in terms of accompaniment for victims and survivors.

“When we listened to survivors, we asked them about how they had been groomed and how the abuse of power came into effect. We learn a lot about establishing relationships in a meaningful and respectful way and how to keep boundaries and exercise power in a healthy way. I’ve always tried to be as transparent as possible with media and with the public about what we do, where our limitations lie and how much we still have to cover.”

By David McMahon, Communications Manager, The Society of Jesus in Australia