It was a major promise after a major disaster: In summer 2011, the Catholic Church in Germany pledged full transparency. One year earlier, an abuse scandal had shaken the country's faithful, as an increasing number of cases surfaced in which priests had sexually abused children and then hidden behind a wall of silence.
The Lower Saxony Criminological Research Institute (KFN) was given the job of investigating the cases in 2011. The personnel files from churches in all 27 dioceses were to be examined for cases of abuse in an attempt to win back some of the Church's depleted credibility.
But now the Church has called off the study, citing a breakdown in trust. "The relationship of mutual trust between the bishops and the head of the institute has been destroyed," said the Bishop of Trier, Stephan Ackermann, on Wednesday morning.
The director of the KFN, Christian Pfeiffer, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that the Church had refused to cooperate. At the end of last year, he contacted the dioceses twice in writing. He reminded them of their promised transparency and cooperation. He also asked them whether there was any indication that in some dioceses files had been actively destroyed.
The Bishops' Conference, the country's official body of the Church, was apparently unable to agree on any form of cooperation with the KFN.
The controversy in recent months centered on privacy and data protection: various dioceses have refused to issue documents, allegedly fearing that the anonymity of those affected would not be maintained and that sensitive information could potentially be made public. In response, Pfeiffer asserted in April 2012 that the perpetrator files "never left the church space made available by the Vicar General." A meeting with the indignant clergy around that time was unsuccessful.
Criticism for the Church
German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger has defended the KFN's professional credibility and demanded that the issue be cleared up. "The accusation that censorship and the desire to maintain control hindered an independent examination must quickly be resolved by the Bishops' Conference," she told the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung on Wednesday, urging the Church to conduct a thorough investigation of the abuse scandal.
"It is a necessary and overdue step for the Catholic Church to open up its archives to specialists outside the Church for the first time," she said. "The dramatic shock of 2010 must not be allowed to trickle off into a half-hearted inquiry."
Before the inquiry was called off, the spokesman for the German Bishops' Conference, Matthias Kopp, had insisted that the project should continue regardless of the outcome of the conflict: "Should cooperation with the KFN fall through, there would be a continuation of the project with another partner," he said.
Pfeiffer insists that the church did not uphold their end of the agreement, which was signed by the research institute and the Association of German Dioceses (VDD). Debate broke out about whether individual dioceses were contractually bound by the agreement.
The structure of the study was unique in Europe: All 27 dioceses had wanted to grant the KFN access to their complete personnel files from the past ten years. In nine dioceses, the investigation was to have gone back as far as 1945.
The German Bishops' Conference reached the agreement with the KFN on June 20, 2011. Under the supervision of a team of KFN researchers, church officials were to examine the files for indications of sexual assault. Retired prosecutors and judges would carry out much of the work to evaluate files that were found to be suspicious.
The German Bishops' Conference hoped the examination would answer three questions: Under what circumstances was the abuse allowed to happen? How has the Church dealt with these actions? And what can be done to prevent future acts? The research project was scheduled to last three years and was also meant to examine how offender profiles have changed in recent years.
The project was of incalculable importance to the Catholic Church, because the loss of confidence after the abuse scandal was enormous. The cancellation of the inquiry throws into high relief Bishop Ackermann's statement from 2011: "We also want the truth, which may still lie hidden in decades-old files, to be uncovered."
Early on there was criticism of the project, though. The conservative Network of Catholic Priests pointed out that "even according to normal labor law, third parties are not entitled to claim personnel files."
The model for the study was a survey in Munich, where an attorney went through personnel files -- and identified nine more cases of abuse than had previously been discovered by the dioceses.