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Sinners in Priests' Clothing

Sexual abuse allegations of minors by clerics surface regularly. Experts say that the problem is not specifically church-related, but disagree whether church leaders deal with the issue appropriately.

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"Some are simply sick"

Whether in Austria, Australia, England or the US: Sexual abuse of children seems to be on the rise in church settings. It doesn't only happen there, but as societal role models and upkeepers of moral values, church leaders struggle to deal with the problem. As a result, many cases don't become public until state prosecutors start investigating.

Still, the question remains why sexual abuse of children seems to happen so frequently in church settings.

"Some are simply sick," says Wunibald Müller, who heads a counselling center for priests in distress in the northern Bavarian town of Münsterschwarzach. Müller adds that some clerics also just misinterpret celibacy and never came to terms with their own sexuality.

"They've fallen behind in the psycho-sexual development," he says. "And as a result, 30-year old men are still looking for contacts with 14-year-olds."

Fleeing into celibacy

Priesterseminar von St. Pölten Sexskandal

A Catholic seminary in St. Pölten, Austria, has become the center of the latest sexual abuse allegations

Some clerics even realize that they have pedophile tendencies and believe that a celibate life will be the safest way for them to combat the desire.

"But you cannot solve such problems by suppressing them," says Tim Schmidt, the Protestant spokesman of an ecumenical initiative called "Church from Below."

Neither Müller nor Schmidt argue that celibacy should be abandoned in the Catholic Church.

"Celibacy isn't the cause of the problem," Müller maintains. Schmidt adds that Protestant churches also have a problem with sexual abuse even though their clerics are not required to abstain from sex.

But the two men's views diverge when they talk about how the churches respond to the sinners in priests' clothing.

"What really angers us is that the Catholic Church protects its employees against criminal prosecution," Schmidt says. "It's quite possible that a priest just gets moved somewhere else."

Catholics keep quiet

In principle, the Church is allowed to apply its own code of law, the so-called Codex Iuris Canonici. If proof of abuse surfaces, the suspect gets sent on a leave of absence or suspended. If a priest is suspended, he is no longer allowed to carry out his former duties and cannot absolve people after confession or deliver the church's sacraments.

In the worst case scenario, the priest will never be able to carry out his functions again, Schmidt explains, while acknowledging that the man will remain a priest all his life as the church cannot revoke his ordination.

"The victims receive token compensation at best," Schmidt says. "Sometimes they have to almost prove to themselves that something happened. The Church covers things up because it is worried about its reputation."

Protestant leaders call the authorities

Protestant church leaders on the other hand act swiftly and immediately get state prosecutors involved in the investigations, Schmidt says.

Kardinalsmützen bei Heiliger Messe

The Vatican's decision to require immediate notification of each case of sexual abuse seems more like an attempt to cover things up, he adds. Müller on the other hand, believes it's good that the pope wants to get involved directly.

In the most recent sex scandal case in a Catholic seminary in St. Pölten, Austria, where instructors are accused of abusing their students, the Vatican has sent emissaries to investigate the problem.

A shroud of secrecy surrounded sexual abuse cases until a couple of years ago, Müller says, but that has changed now. The Catholic Church responds better to sexual abuse victims and carefully screens applicants for priesthood, according to Müller.

"It's not enough that someone just seems pious," he says.

While the counselling options are superior in some other countries -- sexual abuse victims can call a hotline in the Netherlands and the church has set up an ombudsman in Austria, the situation in Germany isn't all that bad, either, Müller acknowledges.

Schmidt on the other hand accuses the Catholic Church of too much egoism. "The lack of priests is so blatant that kicking out a lot of people isn't an option," he claims.

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