German Priests' Sex Abuse Scandalizes Church

  • Share
  • Read Later
Vincenzo Pinto / AFP / Getty

The head of Germany's Roman Catholic Church, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg, at a press conference at the Vatican on March 12, 2010

Back in April 2005, Germany was overjoyed when a native son was elevated to the papacy. But in the past week, the Catholic Church in the country has faced a barrage of criticism from politicians and the media as well as from the faithful — and much of the ire is focused on the German who is now Supreme Pontiff in Rome. On Monday, the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung splashed the headline "Benedict XVI Remains Silent" on a front-page story describing how the Pope declined to comment on the growing priestly sexual-abuse scandal in his native Germany during public prayers in the Vatican on Sunday. "The abuse scandal has been a nightmare," Alois Glück, president of Germany's lay organization, the Central Committee of German Catholics, tells TIME. "It's one of the worst crises that we've seen in the Catholic Church here in Germany."

The Catholic Church has been on the defensive in Germany since January, when at least 50 cases of sexual abuse from the 1970s and '80s were reported at the Jesuit high school, Canisius College, in Berlin — with two priests linked as alleged perpetrators. That was the catalyst. Within weeks, dozens of victims came forward with accusations at other Catholic schools and institutions. With up to 200 allegations of abuse, 22 out of Germany's 27 Roman Catholic dioceses have been affected by the scandal. Even the famous choir of Regensburg, in Bavaria, which the Pope's brother Georg Ratzinger led for 30 years, has been drawn into the scandal, after former choirboys described a "system of sadistic punishments and sexual lust." (The retired Georg Ratzinger says he didn't know about the alleged sexual-abuse incidents.)

Benedict himself has been linked to the latest controversies. In the early 1980s, a priest suspected of abuse was transferred to the Pope's former archdiocese in Munich — and that case has raised further awkward questions about the church's handling of abuse allegations. Last Friday, the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising confirmed in a statement that "serious mistakes were made in the 1980s" after the priest, known as "Father H," was moved from the western city of Essen to Munich and was allowed to continue with his pastoral work. According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Father H had been transferred from Essen after he allegedly forced an 11-year-old boy to engage in oral sex.

Church officials in Munich said the Pope, who as Joseph Ratzinger was Archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982, was involved in the decision to house the priest at the archdiocese so he could receive therapy. But the archdiocese insisted that the decision to reassign the priest to pastoral work was taken by Archbishop Ratzinger's then deputy, Vicar General Gerhard Gruber, who said he took full responsibility for the decision to allow the priest to return to work. Father H was convicted in 1986 of sexually abusing minors, receiving a suspended prison sentence and a fine. Despite the jail sentence, the priest controversially carried on with his pastoral duties.

On Sunday, some members of the congregation in Bavaria where the priest used to work walked out of Mass in protest, furious after reading reports about the history of abuse. On Monday, the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising announced that Father H was being suspended immediately from his pastoral duties (ministering to tourists in the Bavarian spa town of Bad Tölz) because he had violated the conditions under which he was allowed to work, which prohibited contact with young people. Church officials in Munich said there were no new reports of sexual abuse linked to the priest. His superior, Prelate Josef Obermaier, resigned on Monday.

"It's very disappointing that the Pope has kept silent on this issue," says Chris Weisner, spokesman for the Catholic reform group We Are Church. "Many Catholics in Germany had hoped that the Pope would have expressed a word of personal sympathy for the victims of abuse," he said. Indeed, on the Good Friday before Ratzinger became Pope in 2005, he issued a resounding call for reform in the church, saying, "How much filth there is in the church, and even among those ... in the priesthood" — widely believed to have been a reference to the abuse scandals affecting the church's standing in North America and other parts of the world. The church's reputation in Germany has taken a beating from the daily drip of new allegations. A poll published by the TNS Emnid Institute on Sunday found that 71% of Germans believe the abuse scandal has damaged the credibility of the Catholic Church.

The Vatican issued stern statements over the weekend suggesting there was a plot to smear the Pope. The head of Germany's Catholic Church, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, held a private audience with the Pope at the Vatican on Friday. After their meeting, the head of the German Bishops' Conference said he'd briefed the Pope on the situation in Germany. "With great shock, keen interest and deep sadness, the Holy Father took note of what I had to say," Zollitsch told reporters. The Archbishop said the Pope had encouraged German bishops to proceed with "determination and courage" in investigating the allegations of abuse, and added that church leaders in Germany would intensify preventive measures in schools and local communities and conduct a review of current guidelines on priests suspected of abuse. The aim, he said, was to "uncover the truth and have an honest clarification" of the incidents, even if they took place years ago.

It remains to be seen if that will be enough to allay the frustrations of Catholics who feel the church has been keener on protecting accused priests than comforting their alleged victims. Catholic grass-roots groups say the church should set up more telephone hotlines so victims of abuse can report cases easily and needs to be more proactive in dealing with errant priests. "The church should actively cooperate with state prosecutors in making public abuse cases and step up preventive measures, like background checks and training young priests and children to identify and avoid sexual abuse," says Weisner. "In the past, the church's priority was to protect itself, and this encouraged a culture of cover-up and looking away," says Glück, the lay Catholic leader. "The priority now should be to care for the victims and review some of the structures within the church."