When Germany’s Berliner Morgenpost newspaper ran a report in late January alleging child abuse at a top Jesuit-run school, it looked like another in the series of sex scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church over the past decade. 

Yet there are grounds for thinking the latest German media sensation may be different. In a society noted for its thoroughness, the Church’s leaders have been forthright in their response, in a way that could well provide a model for handling similar accusations in future. 

“As in the U.S., clerical abuse is very small scale in comparison with the general problem of abuse in society,” said Ludwig Ring-Eiffel, chief editor of the Catholic news agency Katholische Nachrichten Agentur (KNA). “But the Church underestimated how much public interest there would be, even in very old cases. It’s been very important not to stay silent or assume the problem will go away. It has to be tackled in its early stages, and we can draw positive lessons from the action which has now been taken by the Church at the national level.” 

Decisive action 

In a letter to former pupils, the rector of Berlin’s Canisius-Kolleg, Jesuit Father Klaus Mertes, confirmed there had been persistent abuse by three priests at the school between 1975 and 1983, one of whom was suspected of more than 20 offenses. At least 120 men have since come forward, claiming they were also molested at Jesuit schools in other towns. 

Earlier this month, Germany’s Der Spiegel weekly said 94 priests and lay workers had now been implicated. The rector of one Jesuit college has resigned. 

Meanwhile, though most of the crimes date back too far for criminal charges, the Jesuits’ provincial, Father Stefan Dartmann, has appointed an attorney to discuss compensation with the victims. 

Accusations of clerical abuse are not new in Germany. In a letter last June to the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the president of the Catholic bishops’ conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg, acknowledged that some priests had been involved, and offered to meet victims of molestation in person if they came forward. 

This time around, Germany’s Catholic bishops have vowed decisive action. “We want an honest clarification, free of incorrect considerations, whenever such occurrences are reported to us,” the bishops’ conference said in a late February statement. “We are assuming responsibility, and we condemn the offenses committed by monks, priests and their colleagues in our dioceses. We also ask pardon, in shame and shock, from all those who fell victim to these appalling acts.” 

The statement recalled that Church leaders had issued guidelines for handling abuse charges in 2002, but had been unaware of the extent of the problem. It added, “independent external advisers” would now be asked to review guidelines and to help implement a four-point plan for improved detection and prevention. 

“The guidelines already prevent cover-up and subterfuge — they offer human, therapeutic and pastoral aid individually adapted to the victims and a point of contact for turning to,” the bishops’ conference said. “Many arrangements exist in German civil society and state institutions for helping victims of sexual violence. We want to learn from them.” 

Among measures so far, the bishops have opened a hot line for victims and tapped Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier to oversee abuse claims, with an office at the bishops conference secretariat in Bonn. 

Bishop Ackermann has recommended including sexuality issues in seminary training programs, and has called for a “culture of vigilance” in Catholic schools and communities. However, he’s also rejected media suggestions that sex abuse is linked to priestly celibacy. 

“Everyone involved in these serious investigations has made clear there’s no link between them,” the bishop told Vatican Radio. “Whenever an abuse case involving a priest comes to light, there’s a tendency to place clergy under a general suspicion of sexual inhibition and perversion. This is unreal — it belies the seriousness of the issue and is unfair to the suffering victims.” 

Mixed reaction 

Though Mass attendance and priestly vocations have fallen in Germany, the Catholic Church holds a strong position in German society as a moral voice, and is also important economically as one of the country’s largest employers. Unless the negative publicity is handled carefully, the Church could face serious harm. 

Not everyone is satisfied with its response so far. Germany’s justice minister, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, accused Church leaders in a prime-time TV interview of failing to cooperate with her ministry and violating national law. 

However, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told KNA that she was broadly satisfied with the efforts being made. 

Archbishop Zollitsch has called for a national roundtable discussion of sex abuse and welcomed calls to extend Germany’s time limit for prosecuting culprits. 

“We can always do things better, but has any other social group taken such a clear line of conduct?” the archbishop asked the Welt am Sonntag weekly. “Every offense committed by a priest represents an especially heavy betrayal of trust. But the fact remains that molestation is also a general social problem.” 

Lessons from U.S. Church 

The German Church is not alone in Europe in facing clergy sex abuse allegations. Those allegations surfaced after similar claims against the Church in Ireland, whose bishops had mid-February crisis talks on the issue in the Vatican. The Dutch and Austrian churches are also embroiled in clergy abuse scandals (see sidebar). 

Unless Church leaders everywhere unite in countering sex abuse once and for all, some Catholics fear it could appear endemic to the European Church, and inflict the kind of damage suffered by the Church in the United States. The German Church seems determined to avoid this. 

“We can learn something here from how the U.S. bishops tackled these issues a decade ago, and especially from the zero-tolerance policy they publicly adopted,” KNA’s Ring-Eiffel told Our Sunday Visitor. 

“Bishops and clergy in Germany have strong collective memories of how Catholic clergy were subjected to high-profile trials in the 1930s in a bid to discredit the Church,” he said. “We should be determined today to avoid handing a new weapon to anti-clerical and anti-Catholic groups in our society.” 

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.

Elsewhere in Europe (sidebar)

In the Netherlands, the head of the Salesian order, Father Herman Spronck, agreed on March 1 to investigate newspaper claims that children had been abused at a monastery school in eastern Holland during the 1960s. 

In Austria, the Vienna archdiocese’s spokesman confirmed there were 17 reported cases of sex abuse by priests nationwide last year, while the Graz-Seckau Diocese confirmed an abuse victim had attempted to blackmail clergy. On March 5, Austrian bishops announced new measures to combat abuse.