BERLIN: Germany’s under-fire Catholic Church admitted Thursday it must urgently confront its child sex abuse scandal, but victims accused it of continued “stonewalling”, especially on compensation.
As in Australia, Chile, France, Ireland and the United States, Germany’s Catholic Church has had to admit to abuses by predator priests and clergy and their systematic cover-up over decades.
“We carry responsibility toward those affected around the world – no-one among us can still negate the problem or treat it as a taboo,” said Cardinal Reinhard Marx, head of the German Bishops’ Conference.
To the thousands of German victims and to other critics, Marx said, “we see and hear you … we have understood”, speaking at the end of a four-day episcopal conference in the western city of Lingen.
The era of silence “is over”, he stressed weeks after a Vatican conference also addressed the issue, and he admitted that it should have been dealt with “perhaps 20 years, 30 years ago”.
But Cardinal Marx also cautioned that “the process of cleansing is not finished in three days, it’s a continuing path”, and offered no timetable for concrete reforms.
Matthias Katsch of the main victims group Eckiger Tisch welcomed the general sentiment of more openness but stressed that “what we’re missing is clear words on the issue of helping, in particular on the compensation of victims”.
“The Church keeps stonewalling on compensation,” he said in a statement, adding that “the truth is that the bishops are scared – rightly – that very, very many people will insist on compensation”.
Call for ‘truth commission’
The Church had so far received 1,900 applications for “benefits in acknowledgement of suffering”, the bishop charged with addressing the child abuse crisis, Stephan Ackermann, said Wednesday.
Katsch urged German Justice Minister Katarina Barley to support victims’ quest for justice, days after an Australian court jailed Cardinal George Pell, one of Pope Francis’s closest advisers, for six years for molesting two choirboys in 1996.
Katsch said the victims group’s main goal remained an independent, state-mandated “truth commission” that openly investigates all abuses, combs through archives, hears witnesses and names the perpetrators.
Germany’s Church last September released a study that showed 1,670 clergymen had committed some form of sexual attack against 3,677 minors, mostly boys, between 1946 and 2014.
The authors said the figure was “the tip of the iceberg” as many Church documents had been “destroyed or manipulated”.
Overall, more than half of the victims were 13 years old or younger, the study concluded.
Predator priests were often transferred to another parish, which was usually not warned about their criminal history.
The true figure of German Catholic abuse victims was estimated at 114,000 in a recent Ulm University study based on a randomised survey of the general population that was published in the Journal of Sexual Child Abuse.
Survey leader Joerg Fegert, whose study estimated similar figures for the Protestant Church, told Die Welt newspaper that he hoped the bishops’ meeting “will finally face up to the true dimensions of the sexual abuse of minors”.
Turn the lights on
At the start of the meeting Monday, some 300 protesters rallied outside the conference, chanting “turn the lights on” and symbolically illuminating the church facade with hand-held electric torches.
The rally, organised by the Catholic Women’s Community of Germany, handed over a petition with 30,000 signatures calling for far-reaching reforms, including giving women a greater role in the Church.
Marx said in his closing comments that the bishops had indeed held “controversial” talks that would continue in the wider Church, which has 23 million followers in Germany.
The bishops had focused on three key issues — Church power structures; the training and lifestyles of priests, including the issue of celibacy; and questions of sexual morality.
“We realise that often we are speechless on questions of sexual behaviour today,” he conceded.
But Marx also cautioned that, on wider doctrinal questions, the German Catholic Church can’t “go its own way” but was part of the worldwide religious community.