“Unimaginable today”

The investigation report on abuse at the Regensburg Cathedral Boys' Choir shows frightening figures. For child protection expert Father Hans Zollner, a dark chapter that also affected peers from his home at the time.

Interviewer: The report indicates that more than 500 cathedral priests have experienced physical violence and nearly 70 choirboys have been sexually abused. The number of unreported cases is said to be about 700 in total. You yourself are a native of Regensburg. How did you feel when you heard about the numbers?

Father Hans Zollner (director of the Child Protection Center of the Institute of Psychology of the Gregorian University in Rome): These are staggering numbers. I was born in Regensburg. I know Etterzhausen and Pielenhofen, that is in my neighborhood where I grew up. These were institutions that played a major role in my childhood. We knew how important this choir is and what reputation it has. It's a staggering number, but behind every number there are people. Many people whose lives have been destroyed or very badly wounded, which is very distressing.

Interviewer: Special investigator Ulrich Weber has cited descriptions that could hardly be more drastic: The victims had described the preschools in Etterzhausen and Pielenhofen as "hell," "prison" or "concentration camps". Accordingly, this had nothing more to do with black pedagogy, most of the assaults were – already at that time – mainly punishable by law. How do you explain that no one intervened??

Zollner: That's not explainable for us today, to be honest. The only things we can say today are amptions: That there were people employed and working there who did not have their own emotionality under control at all; who, out of sheer ambition to make the choir a world institution in the musical field, used every means at their disposal; who had a sadistic streak; and that no one looked for years and decades.

I remember myself that in my childhood two of my schoolmates went to the Domspatzen – not to the preschools, but to the Domgymnasium. They also told me that they had been beaten. These things we knew. But today it is inconceivable that nobody did anything to stop it back then. That nothing has been done, even by the parents, some of whom could have known about it, and by the management or the church leadership.

I can also only say that it is certainly also due to the fact that at that time people were not yet thinking about children's rights in the same way and they were certainly not seen as so fundamental. Sensitivity to what happens to young people when they are beaten has developed over the years and decades.

Interviewer: Hopefully, this development has meant that those times are now over. Father Zollner, but how do you avoid similar incidents ever happening again?

Zollner: Whether the times are over I dare to doubt. For our area, for our world region, it is probably already true. Even if I am not quite sure whether this is really the case in all areas of society. I have just come from Myanmar, the former Burma, where I was told that even today parents tell teachers when they bring their children to a boarding school or even to the normal school: "Let your hand slip if our child does not behave properly, because that will educate him or her."

So I think, seen worldwide, the situation is not such that these means, like being beaten with a stick or having to endure humiliation, have been eradicated. Unfortunately, I don't think it's there yet.

What can and must be done is to put the good of human life, human development of young people first. That you also keep in mind what you are doing to these young people when you expose them, when you beat them, when you don't meet them in the way so that they can grow up with all the talents and all the limitations that they will have to experience in themselves and in the world.

But an institution like a school or boarding school can look very closely at the people who work there when they are hired. She can supervise them regularly, tell them what they can and cannot do. She can have people sign what happens if they don't follow these rules of conduct. It is also possible to build buildings like schools and similar institutions already in such a way that no hidden acts can occur, but that everything comes to light, so that no hidden things are going on – neither in physical abuse nor in sexual abuse.

The interview was conducted by Tobias Fricke.

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