Berlin — A report to be released Tuesday documents the sexual abuse of more than 3,600 people by 1,670 clergy members within Germany’s Catholic Church over a period of 68 years — and even those numbers probably underestimate the scale of the problem, the authors say.
Abuse of that magnitude constitutes one of the largest Catholic Church scandals in Europe. But at the same time, it is not altogether surprising to many church watchers. Evidence of widespread abuse and its coverup has been found in every jurisdiction that has launched an investigation. Australia, Chile and several U.S. states are part of the growing list.
The German report, commissioned by the German Bishops’ Conference and conducted by researchers from three German universities, provides a snapshot not only of abuse but of the trauma and isolation faced by victims long afterward.
It also contradicts a narrative held among some in the church that the abuse cases coming to light now are all old and that the problem has since been addressed. The German researchers said abuse occurred throughout the period they examined, from 1946 until 2014.
“We are experiencing a very dark hour in our church’s history, which will hopefully result in a cleansing and renewal,” Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck, from Essen, wrote in a letter to his diocese. “The dangers are far from being exorcised. We must fear that there is and could still be sexual abuse among us.”
Pope Francis acknowledged Tuesday that sex abuse scandals are driving people away from the church. Speaking in Estonia at the end of a tour of Baltic states, he told a gathering of young people, “We have to realize that in order to stand by your side, we need to change many situations that, in the end, put you off,” the Associated Press reported.
An advance copy of the 356-page report was shared with The Washington Post by Die Zeit, a German weekly. The report does not detail the experience of individual victims, nor does it provide the names of alleged abusers or those who helped protect them.
Critics say the study lacks the rigor of state-backed reports, such as the one released last month by Pennsylvania’s attorney general. The German researchers did not have direct access to church files and instead depended on questionnaires and other correspondence with dioceses, as well as interviews, criminal records and an anonymous online survey of victims willing to participate.
The Catholic Church has been slow to grapple with the global scale of its sexual abuse crisis. Francis has called the world’s senior bishops to the Vatican for an unprecedented abuse-related meeting in February. But the church has so far taken few meaningful steps to improve transparency or hold accountable the higher-ups who protect abusers.
Some victims say reports such as the one out of Germany have lost their ability to shock but still heighten anger about the broader pattern of church neglect.
“The impact on the public in Germany right now is quite big,” said Matthias Katsch, chairman of a German victims’ group. “What has influence is the ongoing worldwide crisis. People realize this isn’t a local problem — it is a global problem of the Catholic Church.”
As in much of Europe, Catholicism in Germany has faced a decline. Francis has spoken of an “erosion” of faith in the country. Germany has nearly 24 million registered Catholics, but only 1 in 10 regularly attends Mass.
German bishops have a reputation for progressive leanings, with some advocating for positions — such as giving Communion to divorced Catholics or taking a more conciliatory approach toward gay people — they say can help the faith in the modern age.
Since the details of the report leaked this month, Germany has entered a different kind of debate: one focused on steps the church can take to reduce the prevalence of abuse.
Deutsche Welle, Germany’s public international broadcaster, advised that the church will “need to face up to the discussion about topics like changes in sexual morality, or the abolition of celibacy.”
Speaking on Monday, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, said the church had reached a “turning point” in how it must handle abuse prevention and victims, the specifics of which he said are still to be determined.
In interviews with 214 victims, the researchers found that only about 30 percent had told a third party about the abuse, and that the majority of those who did were repudiated or even punished for doing so.
Separately, among 69 people who responded to an online survey, 94 percent said they were dealing with long-term health and social problems, including symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder such as depression and flashbacks, and problems forming intimate relationships. Of those surveyed, 1 in 5 said they had attempted suicide.
The report found that only a handful of cases resulted in significant punishments for abusive priests. It also uncovered evidence that church documents were “destroyed or manipulated.”
Criminologist Christian Pfeiffer, who was initially assigned to conduct the study, broke off his research in 2013 because the church wanted to change the contract “all the way to downright censorship,” he told the German news site Spiegel Online.
A similar 2004 study in the United States, relying on files provided voluntarily by dioceses, found that 10,667 people across the country had made abuse allegations against priests from 1950 to 2002. This year, after digging into church files, Pennsylvania’s grand jury report found 1,000 victims across six of its eight dioceses over a period of 70 years.
“It is dramatic, the difference between what a thorough state-run investigation will find versus what the church will do when it’s self-reporting,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of the site BishopAccountability.org, which tracks sexual abuse cases. “Whatever the church reports is a fraction of the actual number — a small fraction.”
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