More than half of the victims were younger than 13 and predominantly male, a new report has shown. The study's findings were based on documented cases that occurred over more than six decades.
A study commissioned by the German Bishops Conference examined 3,677 cases of abuse allegedly perpetrated by clergy nationwide, German magazine Der Spiegel reported on Wednesday. The universities of Giessen, Heidelberg and Mannheim were involved in the research, which implicated 1,670 priests in sexual abuse spanning from 1946 to 2014.
The report comes amidst a resurfacing of abuse and cover-up allegations against the Catholic Church around the world. Pope Francis has apologized and pledged to support victims in their search for justice, but he has also been singled out for inaction against abuser priests in the past.
The victims in Germany were predominantly male and more than half of them were 13 years of age or younger. Every sixth case involved a rape, and in three-quarters of the cases, the victim and perpetrator knew each other through the church.
'Dismayed and ashamed'
"We know the extent of the sexual abuse that has been demonstrated by the study. We are dismayed and ashamed by it," said Bishop Stephan Ackermann on behalf of the Bishop's Conference.
The purpose of the study, Ackermann said, was to shine a light on "this dark side of our Church, for the sake of those affected, but also for us ourselves to see the errors and to do everything to prevent them from being repeated."
More cases could exist, the study cautions, noting that the figures represent a conservative estimate. German newspaper Die Zeit reported that researchers were not allowed to look at original church files but relied on information provided by the dioceses.
In many cases, files containing information about the accusers were "destroyed or manipulated," contributing to the difficulty in assessing the extent of the abuse.
The study warned that there was no reason to believe that sexual abuse of minors by Catholic Church clergy was a thing of the past, as continued abuse was still occurring in 2014, the last year of the investigative period.
Matthias Katsch, spokesperson and chair of the victims group Eckiger Tisch, said the report did not go far enough.
"The study is only a slice of the reality," he said, adding that there were not meetings with victims, that files were destroyed and many cases were not properly documented. He called on politicians and civil society to push for an independent inquiry into the matter.
Church needs to 'report perpetrators'
German politicians called for transparency as the Catholic Church investigates the abuse, with some saying the cases must be examined in the German legal system, rather than handled internally.
There is a need for "credible measures to prevent repetition in the future," Lars Castellucci, the religious policy spokesman for the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), told the newspapers of the Funke Media Group.
Stefan Ruppert, an MP with the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), said the church should "report perpetrators and if possible dismiss them." Both religious policy spokesmen fell short, however, of calling for a full independent investigation into the abuse.
Accused priests were often quietly transferred to other parishes, without providing the affected communities with information about the abuser. The church pursued only one-third of abusers, who submitted themselves to church law. However, they received either minimal sanctions or their charges were dismissed altogether.
The authors of the study were reluctant to provide hard causes for the persistent abuse they examined, but they pointed to the celibacy vow as a potential risk factor. The study urged for "coordinated action" and a "long-term list of measures" to tackle the systemic problem of sexual abuse by priests in Germany.
"In addition to a clear call for prevention, the challenge remains for the Protestant and Catholic churches to closely examine whether there are systematic reasons that have facilitated these abuse situations within the churches," Meister told German newspaper the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung newspaper.
Germany's Catholic Church was set to present the study's findings at its upcoming annual meeting on September 25 in the central German city of Fulda.
Allegations of abuse in Germany involving the Catholic Church first came to light in 2010, when the head of a Jesuit school in Berlin went public about decades-long sexual abuse of high school students by clergy. The revelation prompted a wave of victims in other cases involving the Church to speak out.