Symbolic image of abuse © Harald Oppitz (KNA)
Dealing with abuse is one of the most important and sensitive ies for the Catholic Church. Many also measure the credibility of the church by its treatment of victims. But how far along are the dioceses?
Bishop Georg Batzing looks seriously into the camera and holds up three fingers. In response to the question: “What grade do you give the Catholic Church in coming to terms with the abuse scandal??”. As seen in the column “Say nothing now” in the current magazine of the “Suddeutsche Zeitung”. Grade three – i.e. satisfactory. Not good or very good, but better than sufficient or poor. Whether all share the judgment of the chairman of the bishops' conference?
A look at the 27 German dioceses shows anything but a uniform picture – eleven years after the beginning of the abuse debate and almost two and a half years after the large MHG study: researchers from Mannheim, Heidelberg and Giessen (MHG) had in personnel files from 1946 to 2014 across Germany 3.677 victims of sexual assault by at least 1.670 priests and religious investigated without naming names.
In the crossfire: Cologne
One consequence: in June 2020, the Catholic Bishops' Conference became the first institution in Germany to sign an agreement with the federal government's abuse commissioner, Johannes Wilhelm Rorig, to come to terms with the situation. According to the report, there should be, among other things, an independent processing commission in each diocese.
Apart from this, the dioceses have so far proceeded very differently.
The Archdiocese of Cologne is the focus of attention and, in some cases, harsh criticism: Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki was one of the first to promise unsparing clarification and, at the end of 2018, commissioned an investigation into the handling of cases of sexualized violence by those responsible for the diocese from the Munich-based law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl (WSW). After other lawyers attested to “methodological deficiencies” in the WSW expert report, Woelki commissioned a new expert report from the Cologne criminal lawyer Bjorn Gercke in 2020.
It should be ready by 18 March at the latest. March available and names and responsibilities clearly stated.
Munich study with names announced
WSW has also scrutinized the Aachen diocese, with no loud complaints. The report presented in November incriminates, among others, former bishop Heinrich Mussinghoff and his former vicar general Manfred von Holtum. It and its deceased predecessors were more oriented to protecting the perpetrators than to caring for the victims. In addition, there had been considerable gaps in the files and major “systemic deficits”.
WSW was and is also in charge of the Archdiocese of Munich-Freising: The law firm had already looked through personnel files in 2010, but only a brief summary of the results was published – without naming any names. A new study – with names – is still to be published in 2021. Cardinal Reinhard Marx announced he would not get involved.
A completed study has been available since June for Bishop Batzing's own diocese of Limburg. 70 mainly external experts from various fields had analyzed the handling of abuse in the past 70 years in nine subprojects. At the same time, they developed about 60 proposals on how systemic factors could be excluded in the future and how acts of abuse could be prevented as far as possible. In the analysis of the misconduct, names are also mentioned – for example, of former bishop Franz Kamphaus and former vicars general and personnel department heads.
“Grave misconduct of former Mainz diocese leaders”
In the diocese of Mainz, the prominent and popular cardinals Karl Lehmann and Hermann Volk are the focus of the first interim report of a study presented in October. Final results of the independent investigation by Regensburg lawyer Ulrich Weber, who also investigated the abuse cases at the Domspatzen, should be available in 2022. Weber examined cases since 1945, found significantly higher numbers than in the MHG study, and attested to serious misconduct by former diocesan leaders.
The diocese of Hildesheim had already commissioned the social science research institute IPP in 2016 to investigate allegations of abuse against former bishop Heinrich Maria Janssen and other priests. The expert report presented in 2017 accused several former and current responsible persons in the diocese of serious omissions. The accusations against Janssen, the first German bishop to be accused of being a perpetrator, could neither be substantiated nor refuted. When new accusations were made against him, the diocese again commissioned a group of experts to investigate in 2019. Results to be available before the end of 2021.
In December, the diocese of Munster published the first interim results of an independent study by ethnologists and historians, which is to be completed in 2022. According to the report, bishops and other leaders showed great leniency toward abusers among clergy and “massive failures of leadership and control,” according to researchers led by historian Thomas Grossbolting. The bishops had “not only acted morally, but also legally and canonically incorrectly”.
Criticism also of Berlin reappraisal
At the end of January, the Archdiocese of Berlin presented the first results of an expert report on abuse by the law firm Redeker Sellner Dahs. It certifies blatant “grievances” in dealing with perpetrators and victims of sexual abuse. Who is personally responsible remains unclear for the time being, because in the published part neither names of accused nor – with a few exceptions – of personnel managers are mentioned. Representatives of the Diocesan Council and the Priests' Council are now to investigate further, leading to criticism and doubts about independence.
In the Essen diocese, an external scientific study has been underway since March 2020 – also with the IPP research institute. The study will examine cases of abuse and how they are dealt with, and will also identify structures that encourage abuse and cover-ups.
Catholic Church is further along than others
In most other dioceses there are partial reports or similar investigations are in preparation. Some are still looking for victims to help them come to terms with the abuse, as the agreement with the abuse commissioner also stipulates. Some say they do not want to anticipate the independent commission, not even by commissioning their own studies. Several dioceses are also planning joint advisory councils for those affected or commissions to look into the matter – for example Fulda, Mainz and Limburg or Hamburg, Hildesheim and Osnabruck.
One way or another – the topic of enlightenment and reappraisal will occupy the Church in Germany for years to come. At the same time – see Cologne – the prere is growing, also in terms of trust and credibility. On the other hand, the Catholic Church is further along in many areas than the Protestant Church or even schools and sports associations – although this should not be an excuse.
Abuse commissioner: “Room for improvement
And what grade does the federal government's abuse commissioner give the Catholic Church?? He has the impression that the "dioceses are now really getting on the road," says Rorig in response to a question from the Catholic News Agency (KNA). Even if it is regrettable that the events in the archdiocese of Cologne have fueled mistrust in many people about the will to come to terms with the past.
Referring to the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), which has not yet reached an agreement with Rorig, he said he strongly expected that consultations on the matter could be concluded shortly. Irrespective of this progress, however, he also pleads for stronger political intervention and a more independent investigation – just like Federal Minister of Justice Christine Lambrecht (SPD) on Sunday on ZDF television.
Overall, however, he is "basically satisfied" with the Catholic Church in terms of coming to terms with the past, Rorig continued – even if there is still a lot of room for improvement. And with that he is very close to the judgment of Bishop Batzing.