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German Catholic Church owns up to decades of sexual abuse

September 25, 2018

The scope of sex abuse within Germany's Catholic Church has been laid out for all to see following a four-year investigation. Head bishop Cardinal Reinhard Marx admitted that the church has lost public trust.

Church sex abuse
Image: picture-alliance/ANP

Church report details abuse

The German Catholic Church was forced to confront decades of sexual abuse allegations with the presentation of a large-scale investigation at the autumn full assembly of the German Bishops' Conference in Fulda.

The scope of abuse against minors, revealed in the study presented in a press conference on Tuesday, has prompted senior clergy members to call for extensive church reforms, such as allowing bishops and priests and marry. 

What does the "Study on the Sexual Abuse of Minors by Clergy" uncover?

The report, commissioned by the German Bishops' Conference back in 2014, finds that:

  • Some 1,670 clerics, mostly priests, were found to have committed sexual abuse between 1946 and 2014 — around 4.4 percent of all serving clerics within that period.
  • There were at least 3,677 individual victims, most of whom were boys, and all were minors.
  • One in six incidents related to accusations of rape.
  • Sixty percent of the time, abusive priests escaped punishment.
  • The total number of abuse cases is likely to be far greater. The report's author has criticized the church for denying him access to other Catholic institutions, such as schools and children's homes.
  • Many predatory priests were simply moved to other parishes once their crimes were uncovered by the church. Communities were never informed of the priest's previous crimes.

'Just the tip of the iceberg'

Federal Justice Minister Katarina Barley described the study as "shocking and probably just the tip of the iceberg." She urged the church to "take responsibility for decades of concealment, cover-ups and denials" by working with state prosecutors in bringing every case in the report to justice.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the Archbishop of Munich and chairman of the German Bishop's Conference, described the publication of clerical abuse as a turning point for the church, which now desperately needed to rebuild trust with the public. "Many people no longer believe in us," he said as he opened the second day of the conference on Tuesday. 

Johannes-Wilhelm Rörig, the German government-appointed special representative for sexual abuse of minors, insisted that the church pay compensation to victims who are "still suffering from this open wound." The church should also grant authorities access to its archives so that each allegation can be investigated on a criminal basis, he added.

Jörg Schuh, head of the Berlin-based Tauwetter center for sexual abuse victims, said what happened in Germany was part of a global problem facing the Catholic Church. "I would like the Pope to make it his No. 1 topic, and for his church to really work on it," he said.

A long time coming: Although it's been almost a decade since the first instance of sexual abuse was uncovered in Germany, critics say the church has been slow to restructure the hierarchical systems that allowed these crimes to go unreported for years. Other countries that saw widespread clerical abuse — such as the US, Chile and Australia— have all launched criminal investigations, even if several priests escaped serious punishment.

Read more: Opinion: Pope Francis and the Catholic Church's moral bankruptcy

Notable scandals: One of the largest abuse cases to rock Germany was that of an elite Jesuit school in Berlin where two priests systematically abused pupils in the 1970s and 1980s. Last year it emerged that more than 500 boys at the world-famous Regensburger Domspatzen Catholic choir school suffered sexual and physical abuse. Georg Ratzinger, the brother of former Pope Benedict XVI, led the choir from 1964 to 1994 but insisted he was never aware of any abuse going on.

Time for reform? The Catholic Church is under pressure to introduce concrete reforms in response to the report's findings, particularly when it comes to sexual morality among clergy members. Potential changes being discussed include the abolition of celibacy and allowing priests to marry. The church is expected to announce what reforms it's willing to make by the end of Bishop's Conference in the German city of Fulda on Thursday.

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dm/rt (dpa, AFP)