Mr Frank Beyersdörfer has been appointed as Safeguarding Assistant for the Central European Province by the Provincial Fr. Bernhard Bürgler SJ. As assistant of the Provincial he shall support the Province, the ministries and communities in drawing up protection concepts, or in further developing and coordinating the existing ones. In a double interview for the JESUITEN magazine, he talks with Fr Klaus Mertes SJ about the challenges and opportunities of his new task.

Mr Beyersdörfer, can you briefly describe what your job is?

Beyersdörfer: It is a very large province with six countries. At the moment, the job is to ask all the communities and all the directors of works whether the members of the community or the employees in the institutions have completed prevention training and whether there are protection concepts in the institutions. After that, we will certainly ask ourselves again how and on what levels do we need prevention?

Father Mertes, what do you expect from the new Safeguarding Assistant of your Order?

Mertes: I think the question of coordinating the many activities that already exist is important. There are institutions that have already done a lot. And there are some that have done very little. And there are some Jesuits who do not work in institutions. There the question is, what would be a safeguarding concept here? It is good if order is actually created.

But I am now speaking from the German perspective within the Province with the regions of Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, Lithuania and Latvia. We have to come together and tell each other our stories. Learning from each other is one of the most important tasks of prevention work.

What would you both say it takes to be a good Safeguarding Assistant for the Jesuits?

Beyersdörfer: I think it is about creating sensitivity to power relations. Sometimes a person first has to realize that they have power and a privileged position. But it also takes a certain standing, getting people on board. Many agree very much, but there are also people who say "I don't want to have anything to do with that" or "I've had enough". And then they can say "No, this is important now!". And there is also a Roman level from which a certain expectation also comes.

Mertes: What bothers me about the Roman expectation is that they only talk about safeguarding and not about processing.  So I expect a safeguarding assistant to understand the difference and the connection between prevention, reappraisal and intervention.

What are the challenges that Mr Beyersdörfer will face when you look at the Province members?

Mertes: Of course, he will also encounter strategies of denial and defensive attitudes in the order. A classic one is to say "I will not allow myself to be placed under general suspicion". It is quite helpful if the structure of looking the other way is made clear to them and not only the potential perpetrators are taken into consideration. Then colleagues/fellow brothers open up to the big question: What do I do if a fellow Jesuit somehow likes to take young people home in his private car in the evening? That is part of the problem, the bystander system.

When it comes to the topic of "sexualised violence", people often only look at the work with children...

Beyersdörfer: Exactly, that's how I came to this activity in the first place. The former Provincial of the German Province, Fr Johannes Siebner SJ, approached me because I was involved in retreat work. He was not primarily interested in the schools, because they are now quite well established. He wanted to focus primarily on pastoral care.

Mertes: I think it is important to look at the symptoms of assault. Let me give you an example. A few years ago I received a letter from a person who had been admitted to a Jesuit group without being asked during the introductory round. The confrere was not aware of the problem at all.

If you both look at the past 11 years from both your points of view. What does the Church and the Order need?

Beyersdörfer: Cultural change, change of consciousness, change of mentality, these terms would be very important to me. And this is independent of whether it will give us great charisma and make us credible again, but simply because it also serves the cause of Jesus.

Mertes: If we succeed in changing the culture of 'dealing with each other' in the sense of a greater sensitivity for power asymmetries and appropriate behaviour, we can also have the side effect of changing something in church and social culture. The leaven motif, so to speak.

A worldwide conference of the Jesuit Order recently addressed the questions, what helps to understand the causes and how can a culture of protection be developed?

Mertes: The truth. Seeing and acknowledging the bitter truth within one's own ranks. Then the motivation is there to really want to understand. And from that comes the cultural change. I have lived in St. Blasien for the last ten years, in a community where many were over 80 years old. At most, the topic could be addressed in a general way in the community. Because when it came to the question of what was going on with us in St Blasien, the conversation fell silent. In a way, this changes the whole view of her biography. It is incredibly painful to change this view again in old age. Perhaps one should also proceed in a generation-specific way.

What would you say is needed for this successful reappraisal?

Beyersdörfer: We have to be careful not to treat a "topic" or to instrumentalize people to make the Jesuits look good again. But what does it mean not to do that? I would say the way is inward: Self-reflection, conversations.

Mertes: I distinguish between personal and institutional reappraisal. Many of those affected, who do not want to appear in public at all, are reconciled as a result of the individual discussions. I recently received a letter from a former student who thanked me after six years of talks. Now suddenly his nightmares are gone. Institutionally, the issue is justice for the victims. A lot has already been achieved if we develop procedures through which something like justice can be approximated. For example, we have joined the compensation scheme of the German Bishops' Conference. That is one result. I think that is good. The same applies to the question of enlightenment. We have clarified in some areas. This includes a publication that protects the personal rights of those affected as well as those of the accused. A lot has been done, but a lot can still be done.

From your point of view, what still needs to happen?

Mertes: I would be interested in a historical reappraisal. I'm speaking for Canisius College. One would have to look again at the history of the Eastern German Province. Some Jesuits were not perpetrators, but victims of assaults. The whole difficulty of speaking is also connected to one's own culture of origin. In this sense, I found the model of reappraisal that was run in Münster with a church historian really a very helpful additional work. Another thing that I would be very interested in. That is the relationship between leadership and therapy: Directors of works saw themselves more as therapists for their confreres. I don't think there is a cultural movement behind this in the sense of assigning blame, which has led to the blatant misconduct of leaders. These are questions that could be dealt with historically.

Beyersdörfer: Yes, what were the narratives back then?  A historical reappraisal can help us to question our own current attitudes.

Is it conceivable, Mr Beyersdörfer, that those affected will play a role in your concept for Safeguarding?

Beyersdörfer: I think it is conceivable. There are people who do not want to meet Jesuits personally. But I can imagine that within the Ignatian context there are persons concerned who would be willing to tell their story, perhaps anonymously, and would agree that they could be used as case studies in certain training contexts.

Mertes: Nothing is more helpful for prevention than letting those affected speak. I think it is worth considering whether, after ten years, we might not have reached the point where we can integrate the voice of those affected, taking into account their interests in protection.

What is your goal, where should the Order be in five years?

Beyersdörfer: It should once again have become much more sensitive to the asymmetries of power. A change in consciousness should be perceptible, visible and tangible.

This double interview first appeared in the JESUITEN magazine.

Jesuits ECE