Culture of Collusion How the German Catholic Church Protected a Pedophile Priest
It was raining heavily in Sonnefeld in the southern German region of Franconia when two men rang Joyce Kaitesi's doorbell one day in March. She quickly opened the door to let them in out of the rain. One of the men asked her whether they could speak with her son about the matter with the parish priest -- a case of sexual abuse that had happened 10 years earlier.
The mother of the abused boy asked the men who they were. "We're neutral parties," the strangers replied.
Then the two men became more direct. The priest, they said, could be innocent. The boy had been very young and easily influenced at the time, and perhaps his view of the alleged incident had changed in the interim, the men said.
Kaitesi soon realized what was going on. "Did the priest send you? That child molester hasn't apologized to this day! For two years, I had to look after my child and calm him down, and now you show up here, trying to stir things up again? You should be ashamed of yourselves!"
It wasn't the only visit that these men in dark suits have recently paid to former victims of child abuse. The detectives, who were traveling through rural Bavaria on behalf of Wolfdieter Weiss, a Catholic priest, were on a mission to find other young people whose testimony had led to the priest's conviction for sexual abuse of children. Weiss hopes to get his case reopened with the help of new statements in which the alleged victims retract their earlier testimony.
This is not just a surprisingly audacious course of action for a servant of God, whose sentence was most recently upheld by Germany's Federal Court of Justice in 2001, but it also highlights a culture of looking the other way that still prevents the Catholic Church from effectively addressing the problem of child abuse within its ranks -- and apparently even encourages a number of pedophiles to act out their proclivities under the protective cloak of the church.
Until recently, Father Weiss could depend on the support of his fellow priests. Even though the Archdiocese of Würzburg had to assure the court that Weiss would never be allowed to come into contact with children again, he recently delivered sermons and celebrated mass with other Franconian priests who are friends of his -- in services that included altar boys.
Despite reports to the police, parents' complaints and more convictions, Weiss was merely quietly transferred from one place to another. This support on the part of the church, which went on for years, only reinforced Weiss's belief in his own innocence. Only now, after Weiss had hired detectives to obtain new testimony, did something happen that the victims and their families expected long ago: Weiss, who is retired, was suspended as a priest, and his benefits were reduced by 20 percent. But for Kaitesi, the mother of one of his victims, this remains a half-hearted reaction. "Why doesn't the church finally make up its mind to defrock him?" she asks.
Weiss first came to the attention of the courts in the Archdiocese of Würzburg in 1985, after he had kissed and placed his hand inside the trousers of several children in Miltenberg, a town near Würzburg. He received his first conviction and was ordered to pay a fine of 8,000 German marks (€4,090). In return, the case was closed. Despite the conviction, Weiss, with the help of Raban Tilmann, the then-vicar general in the city of Limburg in the state of Hesse, was simply transferred to another parish 170 kilometers (106 miles) away.
A few years later, Father Weiss had to leave his new parish in Ransbach-Baumbach, a town in the Archdiocese of Limburg, after altar boys reported new instances of sexual abuse. Weiss admitted to the church that in his new rectorate, he had also "stroked children because he likes them." Tilmann chose not to take disciplinary action and sent him to work as a pastor in a Frankfurt hospital, ignoring claims that he had touched children inappropriately during hospital visits. In 1992, Limburg transferred the pastor to the Archdiocese of Bamberg in Bavaria, apparently with good references.
Today, Alois Albrecht, who was the vicar general responsible for Bamberg at the time, is sharply critical of that decision. Albrecht says that he felt "quite taken in" by his fellow priests in Limburg, because he had not been "fully informed," even though the personnel department in Limburg was aware of the "scope of the crimes."
In 1998, Weiss, while serving as a pastor in Ebersdorf near the Bavarian town of Coburg, and at St. Mary's Church in nearby Sonnefeld, was back to molesting children. At the beginning of a Christmas mass, one father went up to the altar and shouted out to the congregation: "This man has sexually abused my son several times." The rest of his words were drowned out by organ music.
There was another court case. In its verdict, the Coburg Regional Court wrote that Weiss had "stroked the bare buttocks" of two children and had touched another child "on the behind and the genitalia through clothing." In each case, the verdict read, he had done these things "for sexual gratification." According to the court, the consequences of Weiss's actions in the case of Joyce Kaitesi's son, who was one of the victims, amounted to "serious emotional damage following the crime with anxiety states." Weiss was sentenced to two years probation.
Weiss claims that he is merely giving the children "fatherly affection, when I stroke them," and he refuses to call it abuse or molestation. He admits having offered children money to sit on his lap. "I always knew where the boundary lies between sexual activity and tenderness," he insists. "It may be that I touched someone on the buttocks once, but I don't consider the buttocks a sexual part of the body."
Weiss has fashioned his own little world in his Würzburg apartment, which is filled with stacks of documents and files with which he intends to prove his innocence. He is very happy to present a pile of letters from his supporters. Apparently Father Weiss is not the only one who, after years of the church downplaying and even supporting the abuser, has yielded to the delusion that he is innocent.
"Even within the church, there remains to this day a broad group of supporters consisting of priests and members of religious orders," Karl Hillenbrand, the current vicar general of Würzburg, admits. "These people encourage him and even support him financially." A number of gullible Catholic women paid Weiss's first fine of 8,000 German marks. As for the 12,000 German marks in compensation that Kaitesi's son received, Weiss did not have to pay that either -- it was covered by statutory accident insurance, because the incident occurred in a school. Given that the perpetrator did not have to suffer much as a consequence of his actions, he may not have realized that what he was doing was wrong.
While Catholic priests who publicly admit to being in a relationship with a woman are quickly shown the door, the pedophile Weiss was allowed to retain his status as a priest, despite the repeated incidents. In addition, the Würzburg archdiocese even provided him with a large, church-owned apartment. Today, he lives comfortably and inexpensively in a building occupied by deserving clergy from the archdiocese.
"If someone is given that much respect, how can he feel guilty?" asks Matthias Wimmer, one of his former victims in Miltenberg. "I can still see the image of his parish office. He used to invite us in, took me and other children on his lap, caress our ears and then stroke our naked buttocks. He offered us money. We were nine or 10 years old, and we didn't know what was happening, but it was unpleasant."
Court documents reveal the extent to which church officials provided for their fallen brother. For example, shortly after Weiss was convicted in 2000, the Würzburg head of personnel, Heinz Geist, saw to it that the perpetrator's moving costs would be reimbursed, and he encouraged Weiss to do some archiving work at home, because he was still being paid his old salary. As Geist himself wrote: "The vicar general is concerned that some hack will figure out that you are refusing to work in the archives, and will turn that into an article. Then the whole thing will start all over again."
Father Josef Grotz, who was in charge of training priests in Würzburg for many years, probably also put the idea into Weiss's head that he was innocent. Grotz wrote sympathetic letters to "Dear Wolfdieter" which were intended to ease the priest's conscience. In 1993, for example, after Weiss's activities had already been noticed in two places, Grotz defended the priest's work with young people: "You don't think any malicious thoughts, but others immediately construe your actions as malicious. The tiniest things are used against you all too quickly. And you know what stupid things children can say when they are interrogated by suspicious people."
In a letter to Weiss in 1999, Grotz bragged about how he had protected "dear Wolfdieter" from the press. "The caller also knew about the ruling by the Obernburg Regional Court. I claimed that you were acquitted at the time I can imagine that some journalist is putting together yet another program about sexual offences committed by Catholic priests and is tracking down every lead he happens to come across, regardless of how he came up with those leads in the first place."
The tacit collusion within the church has provided food for thought for the vicar general Karl Hillenbrand. "The Weiss case has made it clear to me that perpetrators of abuse always need a protective environment -- sympathizers and people in their surroundings who tolerate them," he says.
Hillenbrand recently made his own policy of zero tolerance clear to the pedophile, who refuses to undergo any therapy. According to Hillenbrand, he saw Weiss on the main square in Würzburg as he was watching a children's festival sponsored by Bavarian Public Radio and the city. Weiss made excuses for his presence there, telling Hillenbrand that he was just waiting for someone who was attending mass.
The vicar general, however, did not believe his subordinate and ordered him to leave the area. After all, mass had ended hours earlier.