Calls for Full Investigation Number of Church Abuse Cases Continues to Rise in Germany
The Catholic Church in Germany is under pressure as more and more cases of sexual abuse come to light. Now the government is demanding that the Church take rigorous action to investigate the incidents. By SPIEGEL staff.
For years, Jörg D. was plagued by feelings of shame, insecurity and rage. Finally, on Sept. 17, 2009, he sent the pope a four-page letter describing his plight. "I beg you for help, in whatever form possible," he wrote.
But Benedict XVI remained silent. To this day, Jörg D., now 25, has not received a response, "not even a two-liner, nothing, nothing at all."
Franz-Josef Bode, the bishop of the city of Osnabrück in northwestern Germany, hasn't been much help either. He advised D., a victim of abuse, to "forgive and forget."
In fact, Bishop Bode wants all the 14 victims, who at the time were altar boys and children preparing to receive their first communion, to forgive and forget. Over the course of several years, ending in 1995, they were sexually abused a total of 227 times by their priest in a village near the Dutch border. The priest involved, Father Alois B., got off lightly, with only a probation sentence.
"The church was more concerned about the offenders than the victims," says Jörg D. "It provided them with therapy, stays in health resorts, new apartments or new positions, and it assiduously wiped away their old tracks. The abused children were left to fend for themselves."
German Church Apologizes
New allegations of abuse by members of the Catholic Church are emerging every day. Ursula Raue, a Berlin attorney who has been engaged by the Jesuits to handle abuse cases, has counted 12 suspects and 120 victims in the space of only three weeks. Raue says that the order knew of only two suspects and seven victims in late January. "The numbers are rising by the day," she says. Many other orders, Catholic institutions and parishes are affected, as new victims report cases of alleged abuse to dioceses, newspapers and counseling centers throughout the country.
Despite the apparent urgency of the situation, Germany's highest-ranking Catholic, Freiburg Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, had been unavailable for comment for weeks during the scandal. At a meeting of the German Bishops' Conference this week in Freiburg, the issue of "sexual abuse" was initially intended as a secondary item on the agenda. "The aging society" was meant to be the main focus of the meeting.
However Zollitsch on Monday told the conference that he wanted to apologize in the name of the Church to the victims of abuse at Catholic schools. "Sexual abuse of children is always a horrible crime," he said, adding that he wanted to "apologize to all those who were victims of such crimes."
Biggest Scandal in Decades
In reacting to what is probably the biggest scandal within their ranks in decades, German bishops have seemed helpless and dazed, sometimes concerned about the victims, but often stubborn, out of touch with reality or ignorant -- and generally confused. Some say they are "stunned and concerned," while others, like Augsburg Bishop Walter Mixa, have summarily assigned some of the blame for the abuse to the "so-called sexual revolution."
All of the publicity has overshadowed the more urgent needs of conducting a thorough investigation into the incidents, prosecution of the offenders and help for the victims.
What is needed is an independent commission, with a staff to investigate all allegations and hold accountable the offenders and those who knew about them within the church hierarchy. Such a commission would also have to ensure that the long-neglected victims finally receive counseling, therapy and compensation.
This is the way the abuse scandals involving the Catholic Church in Ireland and the United States were dealt with. Commissions in those two countries investigated thousands of alleged offenders. Ireland's commission was headed by an experienced judge, who was given the authority to inspect secret Church records and question the parties involved. Are Germany's bishops afraid of so much transparency and the results it could yield?
Hiding Behind Pretexts
Even the German government is unequivocally calling upon Church leaders to take action -- an extremely unusual approach in the context of the relationship between Church and state.
"I expect the Catholic Church to provide concrete information on which measures are being taken for a complete investigation," says German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger. "It is not very helpful when a few people in positions of authority, like Bishop Mixa, hide behind polemical pretexts instead of helping to resolve the matter."
Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a member of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), proposes the appointment of ombudsmen and a round table of representatives of the government, the Church and victims. Such a panel, she says, would be "a good way to clear up the many abuse cases and give the Catholic Church an opportunity to enter into dialogue with the victims over voluntary compensation."
The prevalent view within the clergy, however, is still that sexual assaults are isolated cases, the regrettable transgressions of brothers gone astray. German bishops are determined to avoid the fate of their Irish counterparts, who were summoned to Rome last week for a public dressing-down over their handling of child abuse scandals.
At the same time, the many new suspected cases indicate that abuse of children and adolescents was apparently widespread throughout the Catholic world. One of the German Catholic institutions where child abuse allegedly took place is the Franz Sales House, a facility for handicapped people in the western city of Essen, which recently celebrated its 125th anniversary as a "venerable institution with a great history." It represents "a culture of attentiveness," Essen Auxiliary Bishop Franz Vorrath said.
- Part 1: Number of Church Abuse Cases Continues to Rise in Germany
- Part 2: 'We Were Locked in the Attic'