You are on page 1of 2


Original sin

Catholic church child abuse scandal grips Germany. By Lalon Sander

T he Catholic church in Germany has been rattled to its core. Over the pastweeksthescandalsurrounding

sexual abuse in Catholic institutions has taken on such great dimensions that nothing has been able to divert attention from it – neither the spectacular resignation of the head of the Protestant church for being caught drinking and driving, nor the conviction of the German

Islamist terrorists attempting to build car- bombs. The church has managed to keep the country’s media on its toe with one headline after the other, the most recent being questions aimed at the Pope. On January 28, a Berlin daily published

a report about the principal of a Catholic high school who had sent letters of apology to about six-hundred alumni. “It

is with deep shock and shame that I take

note of those horrible years of systematic abuse,” Father Klaus Mertes wrote to the former students. Two teachers of the school were suspected of having sexually abused at least seven pupils of the all-boys high school in the 1970s and 1980s. Though two students had already notified him in 2004 and 2005, Mertes said he did not act, because the victims had asked for confidentiality. In December and January, however, five other ex-students had reported that they too had been abused. “What they told me, compels me to assume that there are unreported cases out there,” Mertes wrote in his letter. He was right. The number of unreported cases would, however, turn out to be much higher than he probably had anticipated, and concern other Catholic institutions. Besides the prestigious Jesuit-run high school in Berlin, alumni of other Jesuit-run schools in Hamburg and Sankt Blasien reported cases of sexual abuse.

Later, homes run by the Order of Don Bosco would be added to the list.

20 March/April 2010

And, finally beginning March, the police raided a prestigious boarding school in southern Germany. Apparently, students had been abused there as recently as 2005. At Father Klaus Mertes’ prestigious high school, by the end of February, 150 victims had charged at least twelve staff members with sexual abuse. Piece by piece the picture came together with newspapers digging out more and more victims who told of their ordeals. One victim was made to accompany his teachers into the basement on several occasions, where he was then abused. Others spoke of having been taken on car rides and being touched by the priests. Still, others reported of having been taken out of bed at night or having to perform sexual services, to be allowed to go to the bathroom. The lawyer, in charge of investigating the cases of abuse for the Jesuits, Ursula Raue, summarised the sexual abuse, “The victims especially spoke of the manipulation of genitals and of caresses, rarely of violence.” In other cases, victims reported having to light a candle every time they masturbated, and then being questioned meticulously by the priests. The final picture is one of systematic

The final picture is one of systematic sexual abuse by people in positions of responsibility. A survey by the SPIEGEL magazine showed that there have been ninety-four suspected cases of sexual abuse in the past fifteen years.

Independent World report

sexual abuse by people in positions of responsibility. A survey by the SPIEGEL magazine showed that there have been ninety-four suspected cases of sexual abuse in the past fifteen years. Of these, thirty were prosecuted. Currently, there are ten cases of suspected sexual abuse in Catholic institutions. And yet, these cases are probably only the tip of an iceberg. Firstly, there may yet be more cases of sexual abuse that have gone unreported and that may come up as time passes. Secondly and more importantly, however, there are definitely an exponentially larger number of cases of abuse that was non-sexual. Over a hundred former students at the boarding school in southern Germany, complained of having been systematically and brutally beaten by teachers well into the 1980s and 1990s. The principal conceded that even today “mild biffs on the head” were nothing unusual. At the same time, a committee investigating the conditions of children’s homes in the 1950s and 1960s published a preliminary report in mid-January. About two thirds were run by church institutions – both Catholic and Protestant – and while most children suffered some form of abuse, about a third also reported being sexually abused, usually by wardens, clergymen, or even other students. What remains open, is how all these cases have managed to have remained unadressed for so long. Justice will not be done for many victims as the perpetrators are often dead or demented from old age. Other cases are barred since sexual abuse, even in the most severe cases, is only punishable up to ten years after the victims reach adulthood – many of the reports now are by men and women in their forties. At the same time, many victims recounted going to the authorities with their charges, and nothing being done. At

Pope Benedict XVI: Photo by Oliver-Bonjoch. the best, the suspects were transferred to another post,

Pope Benedict XVI: Photo by Oliver-Bonjoch.

the best, the suspects were transferred to another post, never, however, were the reasons for the transfer made public or even made known to the victims or their new place of work. One reason why the Catholic church specifically has trouble addressing such problems may be a document that was written up in 1962 and discovered by the Guardian when a similar wave of charges came to light about clergymen in the United States: The Crimine solicitationies. The confidential sixty-nine-page document, bearing the signature of Pope John XXIII, forces even the victims to take an oath of secrecy under pain of excommunication – clergymen are forced to cover up such incidents or face discipline. The Murphy Report, which investigated a similar scandal in Ireland and was released in November 2009, stated that it had “no doubt that clerical child sexual abuse was covered up,” from January 1975 to May 2004.

A central figure in covering up scandals until the very end seems to have been a certain Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who in 2001 sent a letter to all bishops asserting that the 1962 document was still in force and that evidence of sexual abuse cases was to be kept confidential until ten years after the victims reached adulthood. For the German victims, this would mean that by the time the Catholic church made the charges public, they would have been barred and would no longer be prosecuted. Cardinal Ratzinger was voted Pope Benedict XVI, in April 2005. Perhaps this is why the German bishops’ conference took more than three weeks before it made a first statement. “I apologise on behalf of the Catholic church in Germany, to all who became victims of such crimes,” chairman Robert Zollitsch said. “Sexual abuse of children is always a heinous crime. And, it is a sin.” Meanwhile, the laity organisation Wir

Independent World report

sind Kirche (We are church) has demanded that Pope Benedict XVI be questioned, because he was archbishop of Munich, between 1977 and 1982, when some of the abuse cases in the boarding school in southern Germany took place. The current archbishop of Munich has admitted that a clergyman was transferred from his post during Ratzinger’s tenure because of charges of sexual abuse. Abuse is also said to have taken place in the school’s renowned choir group Regensburger Domspatzen, which was headed for thirty years until 1994 by the current pope’s brother, Georg Ratzinger.

Lalon Sander is a Berlin-based journalist with Die Tageszeitung.

March/April 2010