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World

Criminologist: Church's sins 'must be laid open'

The UN has sharply criticized the Catholic Church, saying it must finally publish its records on abuse cases. Researcher Christian Pfeiffer requested the documents without success and is now demanding clarity.

Criminologist Christian Pfeiffer (c) picture-alliance/AP

Christian Pfeiffer

Christian Pfeiffer serves as director of the Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony. The Catholic Church commissioned him to head a research project to investigate abuse perpetrated by priests. After Pfeiffer demanded more transparency in the preparation of documents, the Catholic Church dissolved his contract in early 2013.

DW: Mr. Pfeiffer, in light of the thousands of cases of child sex abuse, the United Nations has called upon the Vatican to distance itself from priests convicted or suspected of these crimes. How do you view this UN initiative, and how realistic is it that it will succeed?

Christian Pfeiffer: I think the UN is right. In the research that we began but that was later stopped, we were clearly able to see that in the early years - so, in the 1950s, 60s and 70s - many priests were obviously able to continue working but with different assignments. They were moved, but they weren't always necessarily punished. At present, things look different. When a priest commits sexual abuse, then he loses his job and is punished according to Canon law. Above all, he's punished by the state. There's been a change, but with respect to all of the old cases, there's still a lot to work through. As such, it's absolutely justified if the UN is calling on the Church to work under clear rules around the world.

In recent years, there was much media attention on the abuse cases, but given what you're saying, there seems not to have been nearly enough in order to show the true magnitude of this scandal.

The church had the praiseworthy intention of doing that. The research project we developed was intended to analyze cases of abuse from 1945 to the present. However, we quickly realized ourselves that we were coming up against barriers - that in many cases, the documents did not at all contain the undestroyed, original contents. Much had been wiped out, and there was unfortunately no transparency as to the degree to which documents would be available that would allow for a complete clarification of the matters we were researching.

When we then issued a petition, the dismissal came. Meanwhile, the Church has learned a thing or two. It's now in the process of working out a research contract with investigators. It's not yet been announced who that will be. But the Church has definitely appointed an advisory board with high-profile colleagues who are going to keep a close eye on the Church. So what happened to us - threats of censorship and other things - that won't happen in the future. So in that sense, I agree with the direction the UN report takes; namely, that the Church is in the process of learning from mistakes, including in Germany.

The Church may be learning from mistakes, but what you were just describing means that the original crimes were followed by further crimes by accomplices who destroyed these documents.

Not accomplices, no. It's Canon law, and the ecclesiastical regulation is problematic. According to it, when a priest dies or when his deed took place more than 10 years ago, the Church must destroy that part of the records that describes in detail what happened. The Church should finally achieve clarity on this point and adjust this regulation to be in accord with its good intentions so that there's at least the possibility of retrospectively finding out how people dealt with such perpetrators in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

But that means that people are allowed to handle it different ways. It's not true that all of the records of priests who committed crimes and then died are automatically destroyed, or is it?

No, they were hopefully in large part not destroyed. We've never gotten clarity about the extent to which that took place and what possibilities there still are for researching what happened. I'm certain that our successors will insist on that clarity and also get it, and only then will it be possible to say: We're in the position to work backwards comprehensively to find out what happened. Only then can it be ascertained how many priests were allowed to stay in office, despite having committed a massive crime - and often then committed new crimes in the new place to which they were moved.

All of these sins of the past should be laid open. Currently, that's only possible in a limited way. What's even possible will only become clear once the new research application is public and people can see to what extent records have already been destroyed such that adequate research can no longer be conducted with them.

Is there not some kind of legal requirement that the Church hand over these documents?

If the Church had committed in a contract with researchers to do so, then there would have been a legal requirement. With us, that didn't happen. The decisive thing will be how the new contract looks, and whether our successors can potentially sue in order to get the documents. In that way, it would be doable. Otherwise, Canon law decides everything. And no one can force the Church to do, or not do, a given thing.

Even Germany's federal prosecutors cannot?

No. As long as the Church fulfills its obligations, which it credibly took on 12 years ago, to notify state attorneys about what it knows involving abuse by priests, then the state's attorneys can carry out their investigations on their own accord and do not need the Church's records. That is all as it should be. For the sake of research, the key issue is what happened with the records from 1945 until the present - to what extent they're still available in their entirety. But I can't judge all of that because we were denied this information in fall 2012, and our contract was terminated.