Independent committee to investigate sexual abuse | Germany | News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 30.01.2015

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Independent committee to investigate sexual abuse

Five years after the exposure of the German sexual abuse scandal affecting schools and Catholic institutions, victims are calling for an independent committee. They claim that important issues are still unresolved.

Being able to speak to the well-attended Federal Press Conference was a special experience to him, said Matthias Katsch. When it was made public five years ago that the former student at the Catholic Canisius College had been a victim of sexual abuse, he did not have the courage to use his real name, using a pseudonym when talking to journalists.

Katsch said that it was a liberating experience to be finally able to talk about the abuse, noticing at the same time that he was not alone in his plight. In January 2010, reports of sexual abuse of students at the Berlin-based Canisius College triggered a wave of further revelations. A large number of affected people from church schools and colleges spoke in public, but also some from progressive education institutions such as the Odenwaldschule in the state of Hesse. The abuse scandal shocked the whole of Germany.

The silence continues

But now, five years after publication of the incidents, their investigation is reaching its limits. It continued at a "sluggish" pace, said Johannes-Wilhelm Rörig, the government-appointed special representative for sexual abuse of minors. He conceded that awareness of the issue had increased and that legislation had become tougher. However, he deplored that "many thousands of girls and boys are still exposed to sexual violence and receive no protection."

According to previous experience gained by affected persons, the institutions in which they were sexually abused when they were children or adolescents show, for the most part, only little investigative interest. For instance, abuse proceedings at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome are said to be dragged out for an excruciatingly long time. His file had been handed over to the Vatican in 1991, says Matthias Katsch, now the spokesperson for a network of affected people called "Angular Table." The response so far: none. "All roads lead to Rome, and there's a big hole there," Katsch paraphrased this perceived lack of transparency.

Symbolbild Missbrauch in der Kirche

The Vatican's investigations into abuse cases are said to be conducted at a "sluggish" pace

Jesuit Father Klaus Mertes is among those who criticize the church's "depressing silence," which was no role model for his own actions: when he was director of the Canisius college, he was notified by former students of abuse cases dating back to the 1970s and 1980s. Instead of sweeping everything under the carpet, he went public five years ago by sending a letter to 500 alumni, asking them to come forward with their own experiences at the time and thereby triggering an avalanche. But still, Mertes said, a "high emotional interest" existed on the church's part in not even taking notice of information on cases of abuse.

"View from outside is vital"

Often, the motivation behind silence and the cover-up - the victims call it the "second crime" in the wake of the abuse - is believed to be rooted in the system, in "networks" which shield the perpetrator. Getting insights into those and finding satisfying answers has turned out to be particularly difficult for those affected. "We haven't made much headway yet," said Adrian Koerfer, who was sexually abused when he was a student at the private, reform-oriented Odenwaldschule and who is now struggling to shed light on the networks.

Johannes-Wilhelm Rörig

Johannes-Wilhelm Rörig

It followed from those experiences that a credible investigation could not be left to the institutions involved: it had to be conducted by an independent party too, according to both the victims and special representative Rörig. For some time, the lawyer has doggedly been urging the creation of an independent committee to further investigate cases of abuse. The minister of family affairs, Social Democrat Manuela Schwesig, already pledged her support. On January 30th, 2015, German parliament is set to discuss the setup of such a committee.

Compensation issue still unresolved

One of the questions it could help to resolve is the issue adequate compensation for the victims, who often suffer from lifelong consequences of abuse, some of them being ill and unable to make a living. The former Canisius College students who were affected get 5,000 euros ($5.600), not as a compensation, but as a "recognition payment." Father Klaus Mertes dubbed it "a humble token, but still a token."

It was of no importance so far which kind of payment is considered appropriate by those affected. In Ireland, victims received up to 65.000 euros ($73.000) from the Catholic Church, which could serve as a point of reference. "I think it is important to have a public debate on the compensation issue within the framework of the committee," said Rörig. Expectations with regard to the committee - which could be operational by 2016 - are high already: where victims' organizations reach a dead end, it is to take over - even though, ultimately, it can only make recommendations.