Sexual Mistreatment Scandal: Catholic Abuse Hotline Overrun Amid New Allegations

A hotline set up by the Catholic Church in Germany to counsel victims of sexual abuse was overrun on its first day, with almost 4,500 calls. Further allegations have continued to emerge even as Chancellor Angela Merkel says the church is taking "necessary measures."

Images of abuse victims displayed on Wednesday in Berlin by the victims' group SNAP. Zoom
dpa

Images of abuse victims displayed on Wednesday in Berlin by the victims' group SNAP.

It was a much criticized idea. Earlier this month, Germany's Catholic Church announced that it was planning a hotline for sexual abuse victims to call should they be in need of counselling or advice. Given the ever-increasing wave of abuse allegations being levelled at clerics in Germany this spring, however, many critics doubted whether victims would phone up the organization that was responsible for their suffering in the first place.

The critics were wrong. On Wednesday, the first full day of the hotline's operation, fully 4,459 people phoned up -- far more than the therapists hired to man the phones could handle. Indeed, they were only able to conduct 162 counselling sessions, ranging from five minutes to an hour in length. Andreas Zimmer, head of the project in the Bishopric of Trier, admitted that he wasn't prepared for "that kind of an onslaught." Zimmer insisted, however, that those who leave a message will be called back.

The hotline (0800-120-1000, free from within Germany) launched on Tuesday, is just one of many ways that the Catholic Church in Germany is attempting to win back trust even as the flood of abuse allegations shows no signs of receding. Bishops have insisted on full disclosure and have begun the process of reviewing church guidelines on reporting abuse allegations.

'Necessary Measures'

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday evening praised the church's efforts in an interview with RTL television. She said the hotline was a "very good" development and said she appreciated that German bishops have committed themselves to finding the truth. "There is no alternative to truth and clarity," she said, adding that the church has taken "the necessary measures."

This week, however, has been another difficult one for the Catholic Church in both Germany and elsewhere in continental Europe. Germany's national Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper reported allegations on Wednesday and Thursday that Augsburg Bishop Walter Mixa beat youth who lived at a children's home in the Bavarian town of Schrobenhausen when he was priest there in the 1970s. The paper has six declarations under oath of incidents of physical abuse, including slaps and punches to the head. "He punched me in the face with full force," the paper quotes a former resident, Jutta Stadler, now 47, as saying.

Earlier this week, the bishopric of Trier reported that 20 priests are suspected of having sexually abused children between the 1950s and 1990s. Bishop Stephan Ackermann, who was appointed last year, said on Monday that three of the cases had been passed on to public prosecutors, with two more soon to follow. He has asked potential further victims to come forward. "We want to investigate all leads," he said, calling the scandal "horrifying."

'Person of Faith'

Since initial reports of sexual abuse in Catholic schools emerged in Germany in late January, hundreds of victims have come forward in countries across Europe, including Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark and elsewhere. Swiss bishops on Wednesday said that they had underestimated the problem and were now encouraging victims to contact the authorities. In a public admission of guilt, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn said in a service at St. Stephan's Cathedral in Vienna that "some of us talked about God, but did terrible things to our charges. Some of us perpetrated sexual violence. For some of us, the appearance of an infallible church was more important than anything else."

The new allegations come on the heels of a New York Times report last week which indicated that Pope Benedict XVI had known about one particularly egregious case in the United States. The Rev. Lawrence Murphy spent years molesting children at a school for the deaf in Wisconsin, but when the case came to the attention of the Vatican many years later, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then led by Cardinal Ratzinger before he became pope, declined to take action, citing Murphy's advanced age at the time.

The pope made no mention of the scandal during his pre-Easter mass at the Vatican on Thursday. But in reference to the Times article, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told the Associated Press that "the pope is a person of faith. He sees this as a test for him and the church." The pope was set to wash the feet of 12 priests on Thursday evening in a gesture of humility.

Even as much of the focus of the growing abuse scandal has been on the Catholic Church, cases from secular boarding schools have also been made public in recent weeks in Germany. In addition, more than 25 former residents of former East German children's homes have reported having been sexually abused during their time in the homes. Manfred Kolbe, a Christian Democratic parliamentarian whose constituency includes a memorial to a former East German youth re-education facility, told the Berlin daily Tagesspiegel that sexual abuse in children's homes "seems to have been widespread."

cgh -- with wire reports

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