Confusing rules and unclear roles

Confusing rules and unclear roles

Liturgical vestments in a sacristy © Martin Jehnichen (KNA)

Time and again, priests who have abused children have gone unchallenged by their superiors. The Cologne report points to reasons. The dignitaries probably often did not know any better.

Because he abused children, parish priest A. has been convicted twice by the courts. In 1972 he received a prison sentence and in 1988 a suspended sentence. Nevertheless, A. The bishop continued to work as a pastor – first in the archdiocese of Cologne, then in the dioceses of Munster and Essen. It took almost 50 years for A. was no longer allowed to celebrate church services, baptize children or marry couples: In 2019, Cologne Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki banned him from priestly services. In the meantime, A. completely dismissed from the clergy.

Case A. is a particularly glaring example of a recurring pattern: clergymen under suspicion of abuse remained more or less unchallenged by their superiors for a long time. One was transferred to another parish, the other was sentenced to therapy. Otherwise, what often happened was: nothing at all. How can it be? Why did personnel managers, vicars general and bishops not intervene more consistently??

Rules partly completely unknown

"We have come up against a system of lack of jurisdiction, lack of legal clarity, lack of control and lack of transparency," is the statement of Cologne criminal lawyer Bjorn Gercke. Last Thursday, he presented an expert opinion on dealing with abuse cases, which he prepared on behalf of the Archdiocese of Cologne. Gercke and his team evaluated 236 files from the years 1975 to 2018. In 24 of them, they came across 75 breaches of duty by eight senior officials. The lawyers also conducted interviews with the accused from the current and former diocesan leadership.

In addition to unprofessional record keeping, the experts found that some rules were contradictory and others were completely unknown. In addition, the 900-page document repeatedly mentions the lack of awareness of the need for a new party. The officials would simply not have known that they really have to comply with and enforce rules. They would have tried above all to "avert reputational damage to the church".

Hamburg historian Thomas Grobbolting comes to a similar conclusion. He is currently preparing an abuse study for the diocese of Munster, which will also shed light on the role of leaders. The researchers have already evaluated several hundred files. In parts, the documents read as if "a family member were writing to the head of the family," Grossbolting said. "In addition to the transfer certificate, you will also find a vacation postcard to the bishop from confrere XY"."

Researcher finds this conflation of roles problematic. Thus, for priests, bishops are at the same time personnel managers, judges, spiritual guides and sometimes old study buddies, they say. "For a long time, this non-differentiation of roles has not been questioned because it is also associated with an incredible concentration of power," Grossbolting suspects.

Meaning: if competencies and responsibilities are unclear, power does not necessarily have to be shared.

Victims' perspective played only a subordinate role for a long time

The Gercke experts also take a critical look at the power of the archbishops in Cologne. Moreover, in her view, the victim perspective played only a subordinate role for a long time. Thus, child abuse was primarily understood as a violation of the sixth commandment, which the jurists make clear with an example:

According to the report, there used to be a list in the vicariate general of priests who had committed "sexual offenses". Next to the names, letters indicated the type of violation – "Z" for celibacy violation, "H" for homosexuality and "P" for pedophilia. So the officials lumped all the offenses together. They were not aware that consensual sex between a priest and an adult woman is to be evaluated differently than the abuse of a child, the experts explain.

In its investigation, the Gercke team advises improvements. Among other things, he said, the archdiocese should professionalize record keeping, provide leadership training and create an office to oversee offender supervision. Whether Woelki sticks to these suggestions will be seen this Tuesday. Then he presents further consequences of the expert opinion.

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Christina Cherry
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