Prevention must begin for priests in seminary. Robert Kohler of the Ettaler Abuse and Maltreatment Victims Association has concrete ideas about how priests can stand with victims in the parish as well.
Interviewer: What does a seminary have to do to prevent sexual abuse??
Robert Kohler (Ettal abuse victim e.V.): I believe that it is an important thing to be able to talk in principle about sexuality. Try picking up a book, explaining it to someone and finding the right words to say. Then you realize: It's not that easy at all.
This is already a first exercise for me, to be able to simply talk about sexuality – not in the abstract. One must not retreat to not being able to talk about it. It's a very normal thing that is part of human life and a very important part. You have to approach it loosely. It takes a little practice. If you can't talk about sexuality because you simply don't and aren't used to it, then it gets quite difficult.
On the other hand, one must also be clear in which situations abuse actually happens. It is not the unknown that assaults someone. It's a very small percentage that happens – and these people get it very badly. It has to become clear: Some adult is building a relationship with a child. It's not the unknown you have to protect the child from, it's the known. Trust is built. This trust then slips at some point, with an adult acting out his or her personal sexual desires with the child. And that does not belong there.
This must be clear from the principle: It is a creeping process. It's also a planned process by many abusers. One creates opportunities, stretches these opportunities until one is sure that nothing will happen to one afterwards and that one will not be caught. The perpetrators are very often people who build up closeness, who can manipulate through closeness, through trust, through playing with affection and aversion. You have to know this method of initiation.
Abuse is usually not a one-off, aggressive act, but it has a history that builds up over months, maybe even longer, and then ends in real abuse. More and more boundaries are being pushed.
Interviewer: What can the future priests take with them into their parish work??
Kohler: What you have to teach in priestly formation is that it is not so easy to uncover abuse. It is not a black and white situation. You don't catch someone in flagrante delicto. People have set themselves up so that the situation is harmless for them.
It is often not the affected children who report the abuse, denounce it or bring it to their attention. It is the friends who say: there is something wrong with the man, the girl or the boy. It's so common there and then. Then you have to get an initial suspicion, follow it up and then intervene. For me, that's something that I think is already important for priestly formation, that you know this mechanism of abuse.
You must not go in there with false images. Only then can you say: I might have a first look at it. Where are actually opportunities for perpetrators? A priest is often in a position of leadership, where he can contain these opportunities. If he is a parish priest, for example, then he simply has to have an eye for it: Where do I need to change things and behaviors? Where do I have to set limits – even in situations that are initially quite innocuous?. A priest might say: "I don't want that in my parish, that an adult smears sunscreen on a child's back or chest. There are so many little things in everyday life that create an awareness of the topic. That already helps tremendously.
Interviewer: How can the new priests and also the current priests in the parishes set a sign for reappraisal and prevention?
Kohler: From my point of view, there is always a blind spot in the reappraisal: the people affected are mostly people who used to be very involved in the parishes. This is what made these situations of assault possible in the first place – because a corresponding closeness could be built up. In my opinion, too little attention is paid to this emotional connection of the persons concerned with the respective parish or institution in which the whole thing took place. For many, although few are guaranteed to put it this way, this connection is almost a bit like "family".
I know this from my connection to Ettal, from nine years of boarding school. One has this connection. You can like or hate family – but you can't get rid of the connection. For those affected, it is very important that the place where this happened in the past is recognizably safe for them today. That in itself goes a long way to relieving the prere. That is also the basic idea of our project "We know".
For example, if something happened to me in a parish, how do I know if I can go to today's pastor and just talk to him for two hours?? Does he give me any sign of this?? Or am I exclusively influenced by media reports that say: "You can forget about church, you don't need to go there at all"?."That is already a point, with which one can reach the concerning. The priest can give a sign: "Yes, you can talk to me, if something has happened here in this parish. I am listening."
When you talk about abuse and coming to terms with it, you have the big institutions in mind today: Domspatzen, Ettal, Canisius and so on. But a large proportion – including the victims named in the MHG study – have been abused in the communities. People can't come together there. They are pretty much alone there and don't know where to go. Also because of this they have many demands that go to this anonymous church. They say, of course, if no one cares about me, then at least the money is a sign that I'm finally being heard. That's why I think that besides the financial compensation, this emotional part is also tremendously important.
We had this image in Ettal: We want to be able to walk through the front door there again with our heads held high. This image has carried us well through the reappraisal and still carries well today. Then you are no longer the child, no longer the student, no longer on the defensive, but you go in at eye level. One talks there at eye level with people who are responsible there today. And that does good.
The interview was conducted by Gerald Mayer.