“Scandals about sex and money are a super disaster”

Sociologist of religion Michael Ebertz sees scandals and a resulting dramatic loss of trust as the cause of the rise in church resignations. He refers to the Tebartz-van Elst case and the abuse scandal.

CBA: Professor Ebertz, how do you assess the newly published church resignation figures?

Ebertz: The value of 2010 is estimated at 179.000 resignations almost reached – that means: we are again recording one of the peak values since the turn of the millennium. This suggests a similar interpretation as for 2010: the church cannot get out of the scandals and scandalizations. In 2010, it was about sexuality and sexual abuse, in 2013, especially in Limburg, about the disastrous handling of finances.

If both come together – sex and money in the church – then that is basically the super disaster. So we see a variation and a chronification of scandals in the Catholic Church. Here are the main reasons for the high number of resignations.

CBA: This means that many Catholics no longer differentiate between the major scandals and their own personal relationship with the Church?

Ebertz: If a misconduct happens once, it can be interpreted as an accident and a one-time slip-up. According to the motto, "Everyone makes mistakes, even in the church.". But with the current one-two punch, that's no longer possible. Rather, people now evaluate the renewed scandal as the result of a systemic failure. And that leads to a massive loss of trust in the church as an institution. It is clear to everyone that it is no longer just a matter of mistakes made by individuals.

CBA: Often, as you were able to show in a scientific study, church resignations are only at the end of a longer distancing process. Is this also currently observed?

Ebertz: It is clear that after the Limburg scandal, many Catholics are reacting with embarrassment, becoming speechless or even retreating into an internal migration. Many stop their previous involvement with church, but still shy away from the final jump. Only a minority then really makes the radical cut of leaving.

CBA: Gloomy prospects for the future as well?

Ebertz: I expect the peak in the number of resignations to come in 2014. And in the long term, we have to look at more than 100.Stop 000 resignations per year. Because there is still a persistently high potential for disappointment for Catholics. Despite Pope Francis' encouragement, he alone can't fix everything.

CBA: What do you mean specifically?

Ebertz: I expect further revelations in the area of sexual abuse and financial transparency. Many dioceses, for example, have still not fully disclosed their financial circumstances. It also remains to be seen whether the World Synod of Bishops on Marriage, Family and Sexuality in the fall of 2014 and 2015 will produce the results that people are hoping for. The dialogue process on the future of the church also threatens to peter out in many places without results. This will lead to new disappointments.

CBA: A turnaround is therefore impossible?

Ebertz: I am not a prophet, anything is possible. But I see no indications of this at present. Gaining trust is much more difficult than losing it. This is also due to the fact that scandals are much more headline-grabbing and thus reach many more people than, for example, reports on progress in the church's prevention of abuse or new financial controls.

The interview was conducted by Volker Hasenauer.

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Christina Cherry
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