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Sexual abuse goes far beyond Catholic Church

Nancy Isenson
September 25, 2018

Germany's Catholic Church is grappling with revelations that its clergy sexually abused more than 3,600 children over decades. Sexual violence is a problem for all institutions in which kids are dependent on adults.

A boy puts out his hand in defense and covers his face
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/McPhoto

Barbara Kavemann is a senior researcher in social sciences and member of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in Germany, a panel of experts charged by the government with investigating all forms of sexual violence against children.

DW: The German Catholic Church is struggling to deal with decades of cases of sexual violence against minors perpetrated by clergy and documented in a study commissioned by the church. Is part of the nature of large organizations — whether sports clubs, scouting groups or churches — that, with so many people involved, there simply will be numerous cases of sexual abuse?

Prof. Dr. Barbara Kavemann
Kavemann there is no reflection by the church on sexualityImage: Privat

Barbara Kavemann: We know that sexual violence occurs in all organizations that work with children and young people, in part by personnel — that is, adults in positions of responsibility — and very often by peers. It isn't so much about the size of the organization, but rather it has to do with its internal structure. Is there any reflection about one's own behavior? Is there a code of conduct for people who work there? Is there reflection about the behavior of the children and young people who live there? What power structures exist inside the institution? Those are all aspects that can contain dangers if they aren't properly regulated.

Those are the contents of the debate in recent years about "protection concepts" in institutions. What are protection concepts? The opportunity for girls and boys to get information and education about hazards in their lives; the opportunity to complain if they feel they were treated wrongly or unfairly or violently and the opportunity to take part in decision-making about how institutions they go to every day, or in which they live, function.

There is always a great risk of any kind of violence, and thus of sexual violence, when children are in a relationship of dependency. That is also the case in their families.

Shadows of people on a football pitch
In families, sports teams or churches, sexual violence has to do with dependenceImage: picture alliance/dpa/A. Dedert

So, it is not an issue of the number of cases of sexual assault, but rather whether an institution has reflected on the subject, how the hierarchy functions and the relationships between the various people who are part of it.

And how they are trained, how they reflect on the structures in which they work, what concepts they use in working with children and young people.

With the church at the moment, we are seeing so clearly that there is simply no reflection at all on sexuality. But people are creatures with sexual impulses. And it does not work for an institution with which society entrusts children in large numbers to simply tune out this subject. We see now what consequences that has.

Is the requirement of celibacy for priests part of the problem?

It is part of the tuning out of the entire realm of sexuality. It would be fine if people collected there [in the church] who don't want to have sex; plenty of people don't. It would be perfectly fine, if they would deal with the subject.

Read more: Sex abuse scandal in German Catholic Church sparks celibacy debate

For years now we have been seeing sexual abuse scandals emerge in one country after another all over the world. Are we as a society more concerned about sexual violence than we were in the past?

Yes, I would say there has been a change in society, but it isn't as if society became aware of its own accord. Rather, if those affected themselves hadn't spoken up, and in the course of the last year done so insistently, then it would all have been pushed aside. When those affected don't speak up insistently, generally nothing happens.

Church report details abuse