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Germany: Study reveals widespread abuse in Münster diocese

June 13, 2022

A university study found at least 610 underage victims were abused by clergy in the western German diocese. With many cases going unreported, researchers estimate the actual number of victims could be 10 times as high.

A priest holds a rosary and a pamphlet during a Catholic Church service
The bishops who oversaw the Münster diocese for decades were accused of a 'massive leadership failure' and covering-up abusive priestsImage: Jochen Lübke/picture alliance/dpa

The scope of sexual abuse within the Catholic diocese of Münster is much wider than previously thought, a new study revealed on Monday.

It's the latest in a string of reports detailing failings within the Catholic Church in Germany to protect children from sexual abuse by clergy.

What did the study find?

The two-year study was carried out by researchers at the University of Münster, and was set up on the initiative of the Münster diocese. It examined sexual abuse that took place in the diocese between 1945 and 2020.

Over that 75-year period, they logged at least 610 underage victims who suffered sexual abuse from clergy members.

Due to the high hurdles for reporting abuse and the stigma surrounding it, the actual number of cases is likely "considerably higher," the study found.

The majority of those who were abused were between the ages of 10 and 14.

The study estimated there have been at least 5,000 to 6,000 victims in the Münster diocese alone.

"Around three-quarters of the victims were boys, and a quarter were girls," according to a university press release.

"They often had close ties with the church — through being altar boys and girls or being in other groups — and the perpetrators exploited this quite unscrupulously."

Who was responsible?

The study said church leaders engaged in a "cover-up" of abuse over the past 75 years.

Some 196 clergy members in the Münster diocese were involved in the abuse since 1945.

The clergy included 183 priests, a permanent deacon and 12 brothers in an order that was under the authority of the Münster bishop, the study found.

According to researchers, "the majority of the clerics accused were merely relocated" and did not have their pastoral activities restricted.

The study further found there was a "massive failure of leadership" under the four bishops who led the Münster diocese from 1947 through 2008 — Michale Keller, Joseph Höffner, Heinrich Tenhumberg and Reinhard Lettman.

The study also found that the current Bishop Felix Genn, who has been in office since 2008, was initially slow to act against perpetrators.

Germany's Catholic Church reckons with abuse

The Münster abuse report is the latest to bring to light details of decades of sexual abuse and alleged cover-ups in German branches of the Catholic Church.

In January this year, a report commissioned by the archdiocese in Munich said several church officials poorly handled accusations of abuse.

Among those accused of knowing about abuse allegations but failing to take action was retired Pope Benedict XVI. He served as archbishop of Munich and Freising from 1977 to 1982 as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

The former pope denied accusations he was involved in a cover-up.

A 2018 study commissioned by the German Bishop's Conference found that over 1,600 clergy members in Germany sexually abused over 3,600 minors between 1946 and 2014.

In recent years, the Catholic Church has faced growing pressure and backlash over sexual abuse scandals.

rs/wd  (dpa, KNA, AP, AFP)