SPIEGEL Interview with Top Jesuit Priest: 'We Kept Quiet about Sexual Abuse for Too Long'

Jesuit priest Klaus Mertes, the director of Berlin's Canisius College, sent shock waves through the German Catholic Church in January 2010 when he exposed systematic sexual abuse at the elite school. In a SPIEGEL interview, he talks about the Church's response to the abuse scandal and his anger at the Vatican.

A bishop at a meeting of the German Bishops' Conference in February 2010. Zoom
Reuters

A bishop at a meeting of the German Bishops' Conference in February 2010.

SPIEGEL: Father Mertes, a year and a half after you disclosed the sexual abuse of schoolchildren in Berlin, the Catholic bishops have now begun a dialogue with churchgoers in the western German city of Mannheim. Isn't this initiative well overdue?

Mertes: The glass is always half full or half empty. I think it's a good thing that the dialogue has begun.

SPIEGEL: What's the point of such conversations when people like Cologne Archbishop Joachim Meisner, a leading conservative figure in the German Church, don't even show up?

Mertes: That sounds like a defeatist question to me. It would be wonderful if the pope were to say a few encouraging words about the dialogue process in the near future.

SPIEGEL: Has the Catholic Church learned anything at all from the abuse scandal?

Mertes: All I can tell you is what I have learned. I would react much more quickly and offensively to rumors of abuse in the future.

SPIEGEL: You received the first clues years ago, but you didn't go public at the time. Why did it take you so long to react?

Mertes: Those were rumors. Whenever I asked former students or officials about it, I encountered silence or aggression. I addressed the rumors about a priest in my order back in 1996. After that a fellow priest, who is now dead, shouted at me in a way that I had never been shouted at in my life. "I know exactly what you want," he said. "You just want to lambast your fellow brothers."

SPIEGEL: Has it become easier for members of the Church to talk to each other about abuse?

Mertes: It is easier for some, but unfortunately it isn't for far too many. We downplayed sexual violence and kept it quiet for too long. It was only because of the victims that I realized, in early 2010, that the offenders planned their crimes systematically. The silence within the group and in the school functions like a spiral: There is silence about the abuse and silence about the silence. This leads to a sect-like structure in the relationship between offenders and victims, the symptoms of which are overlooked or downplayed in the social environment.

SPIEGEL: Why?

Mertes: The young people remain silent out of fear, and because they don't want to lose their close relationships to the offenders and the feeling of togetherness in the group. There is a kind of insane ambivalence to every case of abuse. There is an overwhelming desire not to be shunned, and there is also the sense of being something special as a result of being part of the group -- despite the incredible violations.

SPIEGEL: You explain it in such matter-of-fact terms.

Mertes: In 2006, when I received the first document that described, for the first time, the abuse committed by another priest, I was shocked. I suffered sleepless nights and was constantly haunted by images that even pursued me into my dreams: images of adolescents who were forced to strip naked and were beaten for up to two hours with carpet beaters, whips and belts.

SPIEGEL: Why, then, did it take another few years until you took action?

Mertes: There were consequences in that particular case. We immediately reported the accused offender to the police. But I didn't publicize the case because I had been asked to exercise discretion. I reassured myself by saying that it was just an isolated case. But now I know better than that.

SPIEGEL: Over the years, the Catholic Church hasn't created the impression that it wanted to clear up the abuse cases.

Mertes: No. And I was always careful about describing myself as someone who can clear up (these cases), because I know what an internal struggle it is before one can break one's silence. I reached that point in January 2010, after having conversations with three victims. One of the most moving moments happened a few months later when I encountered former pupils. There were about 40 adult men, some with their wives or partners, sitting in front of me and telling me what had happened to them. It was incredibly painful to listen to. I had a lump in my throat and my eyes were filled with tears. In one case, the offender had perfidiously tied his abuse to a blessing, saying to his victim: "You are God's beloved child." That shook me to the core.

SPIEGEL: In April 2010, Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano referred to the events in Germany as "the petty gossip of the moment."

Mertes: That's unbelievable. I was stunned that someone could say that, and I'm ashamed of those words to this day.

SPIEGEL: Did you complain to him?

Mertes: No. I didn't have the strength to address that issue, as well. I was comforted by the fact that Viennese Cardinal Christoph Schönborn contradicted him publicly. I was extremely grateful to him for that.

SPIEGEL: Both the Jesuits and the conference of bishops have offered abuse victims up to €5,000 ($7,250) in compensation. Isn't that a miserable offer, given the traumatic nature of some of the victims' experiences?

Mertes: It's meant to send the message that we are not just issuing an apology. We Jesuits deliberately opted for a lump-sum payment because, as representatives of the offenders, we cannot play the role of judges and begin measuring suffering. Many victims find the amount inappropriate. I have to put up with that.

SPIEGEL: Why don't you offer more?

Mertes: We used the basic sum established by the Austrian Bishops' Conference as our guideline. In some cases, we are paying additional sums for current support or for the costs of therapy.

SPIEGEL: How many former pupils have accepted?

Mertes: Of about 200 victims, 54 have filed applications to date, and 30 have already received payments. The process is still underway.

SPIEGEL: The offenders have been punished or are now dead, and the victims are being compensated. Does that put an end to the abuse scandal?

Mertes: We are a few steps further along, but still a long way from the end. An auxiliary bishop recently gave a sermon at a church dedication in which, referring to the German press, he lamented: "We've done everything now, even providing compensation, and yet they are still dissatisfied." This sort of whining is getting louder and its hurts those listening to it. It's inappropriate and dangerous. After all, we still haven't answered the question of how we have to change so that we'll be better listeners when abuse victims want to talk. Do we even have the inner abilities to listen to a young person who was abused?

SPIEGEL: Perhaps this speechlessness also has something to do with the Church's treatment of the subject of sexuality.

Mertes: There is already disagreement over the question of whether there is in fact speechlessness on the subject of sexuality. I believe that this speechlessness can be overcome if we can agree that speechlessness exists. The position that we don't want to talk about it has to change.

SPIEGEL: Why is this so difficult for the Church?

Mertes: When someone wants to talk about sexuality, the leadership begins to fear that it is no longer in control of the debate. It is ultimately the fear of losing power. We ask questions. The answer is a massive silence.

SPIEGEL: What are those questions?

Mertes: What, for example, do I say to a child who is seduced or forced into masturbation and now feels that he is a mortal sinner? Such problems arise in practice, and it must be possible to talk about them.

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About Klaus Mertes
  • HANS-CHRISTIAN PLAMBECK/DER SPIEGEL
    Klaus Mertes, 56, comes from a family of diplomats in the western German city of Bonn. He joined the Jesuits in 1977. Mertes was the director of Berlin's Canisius College, a prestigious Jesuit high school, until the summer of 2011. In early 2010, he exposed cases of violence against several students at the school. A sex abuse scandal which rocked the Catholic Church in Germany followed. In September, Mertes will become director of the Jesuit St. Blasien high school in the Black Forest in southern Germany.

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