On Monday, the Permanent Council of the German Bishops' Conference agreed in Wurzburg on the new guidelines for dealing with sexual abuse of minors in the church sector. The guidelines will be presented in Trier on Tuesday. Jesuit Father Klaus Mertes formulates in the our site interview his expectations.
Interviewer: Father Mertes, as rector of Canisius College in Berlin, you were the first to make public the cases of abuse that had occurred at Canisius College in the past and thus set this avalanche rolling. From your experience in dealing with sexual abuse, what should be taken into account in the new guidelines??
Klaus Mertes: The most difficult and important ie to consider here is the question of procedure – how do I proceed when a victim speaks to me. Because, on the one hand, the institution must, of course, meet the victim with trust in order to listen to him at all. On the other hand, the institution naturally gets into a deep inner dilemma regarding the duty of care it has to the accused priest or teacher or whomever. And at this point the question arises: Who learns what, is there a protected space of trust, and in which cases are there duties to report to the public prosecutor's office?? But at what points are there also rights of silence to protect the victim against the public? These are very important and central questions that need to be clarified.
Interviewer: Exactly this obligation to report has also been hotly debated within the Bishops' Conference. Should it exist, should it exist or not? So whether every case of abuse is always reported to the public prosecutor's office. What is your opinion on this question??
Klaus Mertes: I am skeptical about an automatism in the obligation to report, especially already in every case of suspicion. And this is because it implies risks of re-traumatization in the victim, because victims sometimes do not speak at all if they know that it will go public. And because the public prosecutor's office, for its part, also goes public very quickly and thus very quickly puts the victim in a situation in which he or she is exposed to a prere that he or she cannot resist and then retracts the statement, etc., etc. These are all experiences that victims have had with the public prosecutor's office. The public prosecutor's office is not a victim protection organization, and in this respect the question of how and in what form the public prosecutor's office is informed must be answered in the interest of victim protection.
Interviewer: That is, if it does not go to the public prosecutor's office, it can be handled more carefully within the church, so to speak?
Klaus Mertes: It's not a matter of handling it with care within the church, but first of all it's a matter of creating a level of trust so that a victim can speak at all. But if I see myself only as a mailbox to the public – and the public prosecutor's office is the public – then the victim will not talk at all. That is the point.
Interviewer: If we look at the concrete measures that need to be specified in these guidelines with regard to prevention, what would you like to see??
Klaus Mertes: With regard to prevention, I would like to see a lot of things. There are certainly some financial ies that need to be clarified very specifically in the institutions, simply to create scope for the work that that means. So further training measures, free space for teachers. I am now speaking from the perspective of the school. But what I find even more important than the prevention of acts of abuse, is the prevention of listening in case acts of abuse are reported by victims in the institution. That seems to me to be the even more difficult question. So the central question is: What do we have to change in order to be able to listen better when victims of abuse report to the institution?? Because that is the experience that many victims have had – that when they came forward, they were not heard. And the central question for prevention seems to me to be: what helps to sensitize people to listen??
Interviewer: And there could also be something about this in the guidelines?
Klaus Mertes: There could be something in the guidelines about that. I think this also touches on deeper questions of the church's self-image. So, how do we deal with the big questions of power and sexuality in our public speaking within the institution?? This seems to me to be a prevention ie.
Interviewer: Another topic is always the question of compensation for the victims. The monastery of Ettal has just today set up a fund for immediate assistance to victims. How this will continue in general, whether there will also be compensation on the part of the bishops, is being discussed. Do you expect such compensation, and what can it look like??
Klaus Mertes: It is not for me to expect anything, I simply have my own thoughts on the subject; and there I would say: help of course, yes, that is also part of the compensation. But there are many victims who now no longer need help because they have already helped themselves, but who nevertheless demand compensation, and the question is: What could compensation consist of here?? I prefer the concept of satisfaction, and I think that there should be something like a symbolic payment of satisfaction in the form of a lump sum of some kind. So similar to what Cardinal Schonborn suggested in Vienna. Or according to the institute mutatis mutandis, as it has been introduced in the question of compensation for forced laborers. This is then a symbolic compensation, which cannot make up for the real damage, but which – systemically speaking – is a step towards the victim side from the perpetrator side, which goes beyond mere apology. This is the point at ie, and it is also expected by the victims, at least by some of them.
Interviewer: Now there is a lot of talk, there is also an attempt to do something in this history sexual abuse. The church naturally suffered a great loss of confidence as a result of all this in the last few months. What can she do at all to get out of this credibility crisis??
Klaus Mertes: Not to be too preoccupied with the question of the credibility crisis, but to ask oneself: How can we enter into a process of reconciliation with the victims?? What worries me more than the loss of credibility is the loss of credibility, if I may put it so paradoxically. You don't gain credibility by worrying about credibility. Incidentally, I have made the experience that the clearer the will to enlighten and the willingness to engage in the process of reconciliation with victims, the stronger the trust that is gained. In other words, we see a loss of trust, of course, but there has also been a gain in trust in recent months, which is not making itself heard at all so loudly. And by the way, I believe that in many of the resignations that have now become visible, the abuse scandal was only the last drop that caused a barrel to overflow that had been filled for years beforehand. In this respect, I think that a one-sided reduction of the loss of trust to the abuse scandal is too short-sighted. My experience is that at the moment when there is openness and the will to reconcile, the willingness to acknowledge bitter truths about oneself and to let reactions follow from them, trust is regained. I have experienced a great deal of growth in confidence in the last few months.