Learning from the past

Learning from the past

Memorial stone at the Johanneum in Homburg, Saarland © Joerg Fischer (epd)

Eight years ago, those affected broke their silence about abuse in the now closed boarding school of the Johanneum in Homburg, Saarland. The school of the Hiltrup missionaries wants to face the past. The impetus came from former students.

After years of silence, a representative of the Hiltrup Missionaries has publicly admitted the sexual abuse of boarding school students at a Catholic high school and the order's failure to act. "The victims did not receive sufficient protection at that time. The Order of the Sacred Heart Missionaries asks for forgiveness," said the superior of the convent, Father Ludger Holtmann, at the dedication of a memorial at the Johanneum in Homburg, Saarland, on Friday.

For those affected, this is a belated recognition of guilt. "I have to let this sink in first," said Christian Dehn, one of twelve victims who had already made the abuses of the priests public in 2010. His fellow sufferer Bernhard Raffel did not want to comment on what he had heard for the time being. For years, the two, along with other victims, had fought in vain for the order to publicly acknowledge the acts of its members.

High number of unreported cases

On the grounds of the Johanneum, especially in the dormitories of the now-closed boarding school, priests repeatedly abused their charges, especially in the 1960s and '70s. Twelve victims have come forward, eight perpetrators are believed to be involved. According to the victims, the number of unreported cases is much higher.

In his report to the Johanneumkreis in 2011, Raffel tells of how a priest sat down at his bedside in the 1970s and satisfied him. Thank God he had not belonged to the "favorites" of the father, whom he had probably also raped.

After talks with the order failed to yield results, many other victims refrained from making their own stories public, Raffel reports on the Internet. The impetus for reflection by the school and the order now came from the younger generation. Six former students, graduating from high school in 1992, came together more than a year ago to form an initiative group.

Long years without reaction

After the order and the school had not reacted for a long time, they had a sculpture made without further ado – as one element for a place of remembrance at the school, which was ceremoniously opened on Friday. The seat, made of steel and an armored glass plate with a commemorative text, is angular, slanted and rusty and is meant to make students think. "The boys have achieved what we spent years banging our heads against," said Bernd Held, another former boarding school student.

The memorial was probably also made possible because the school management has since changed. The new principal, Oliver Schales, who had only been in office for a few weeks, took up the initiative of the former students. He personally brought stones from a quarry in France, which have now been erected as a further part of the new memorial at the interface between the school and the former boarding school. They are to be processed by students and encourage further discussions about sexualized violence.

Attentiveness required

Schales looks ahead: "We are not in a courtroom, but in a school."The motto should be: "Learning from the past for the future."Attentiveness, listening, looking and acting are important so that something like this does not happen again. For the processing the order itself is responsible. The eight identified abusive priests have since been transferred, retired or died. No one was prosecuted. "I would like the order to acknowledge that there was 'institutional knowledge,'" says victim Held.

At the new memorial site there is also a plaque from the parents' association, which recalls the dark past. "I feel fully supported by parents, teachers and students," says principal Schales. However, he could not exclude that some parents would not see the reprocessing so gladly. Michael Hackert, spokesman for the initiative of the alumni, reports that there was resistance among some parents to associate the "elite school" to which they sent their child with abuse.

Dispute over sculpture

So also about the first sentence on the sculpture had been argued. There it says: "Here at the Johanneum since the 1960s pupils were repeatedly sexually abused by members of the order Hiltruper heart Jesu missionaries."Opponents would have argued that this suggested that the abuse was continuing.

Speaking for the diocese of Speyer, its prevention commissioner Thomas Mann said. He emphasized: "Forgetting and repressing are not an option."Under canon law, the Order of the Sacred Heart Missionaries, which is directly subordinate to the Vatican, is itself responsible for dealing with the cases of abuse. But to demonstrate how important it is for the diocese to come to terms with the abuse, Vicar General Andreas Sturm also came to the dedication of the memorial. On Tuesday, the German Bishops' Conference will present a study it commissioned on abuse in the Catholic Church at its fall plenary session.

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Christina Cherry
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