Back to the real concern

It was a dramatic crisis in the relationship between state and church: a federal minister of justice questions the bishops' fidelity to the law, they ultimatively demand the retraction of the accusations. Today, Archbishop Zollitsch and Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger plan to meet for clarifying talks.

The cause of the dispute: the church's handling of child sexual abuse cases. Almost two months after this exchange of blows, Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger (FDP) and the chairman of the German Bishops' Conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg, plan to meet in Berlin on Thursday for a clarifying discussion.

Waves of erregu The waves of excitement have subsided somewhat in the meantime. After several signs of detente, the meeting in the Federal Ministry of Justice should at least seal the return to a factual dialogue and point forward. Because already in one week the first meeting of the official round table on the topic "Sexual abuse in dependency and power relationships in private and public institutions and in the family area" is coming up. The panel will meet for the first time at the invitation of the federal ministers for family affairs, education and justice on 23. April together. The Bishops' Conference had reacted so strongly to the Minister of Justice, not least because it was in a delicate position due to the many cases of abuse, most of them dating back a long time, that had recently become known. At their spring plenary, the bishops publicly apologized to victims, admitted failures and decided to revise the 2002 guidelines against child abuse. Thus the reproaches of the minister via "Tagesthemen" interview hit the head bishops during their plenary assembly like a bolt from the blue. The sweeping accusation from the highest state authority caused a great deal of indignation.

Misunderstandings and lack of information However, it was probably also based on misunderstandings and lack of information. Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger spoke of a "wall of silence," apparently referring to Pope John Paul II's. Guidelines on "particularly serious crimes" ied in 2001. According to the guidelines, such offenses, which also include sexual abuse by clergy, must be reported immediately to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and are subject to "secretum pontificum," i.e., the highest duty of confidentiality. What was not clear in secular legal circles: This secrecy concerns only possible disciplinary proceedings and punishments under church law and is in no way intended to protect the perpetrators from the parallel access of state justice. Just this Monday, the Vatican once again unequivocally stated, "State law concerning the reporting of crimes to the competent authorities shall always be followed." Bavaria as a role model? Guidelines ied by the German Bishops' Conference in 2002 state that "in proven cases" the public prosecutor's office should be informed. In the future, the Bavarian bishops want to call in the public prosecutor's office even if they have suspicions. A demand that Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger welcomes and calls for all dioceses in Germany. Finally, the justice minister's insistence on a separate round table just for the church caused displeasure. The bishops felt pilloried, pointing out that child abuse affects all of society. According to crime statistics, some 15.000 cases reported to the public prosecutor's office, most of which occur in families. In addition, numerous abuse scandals at non-church institutions such as the Odenwald School have since been made public.

Compensation and statute of limitations The discussion at the Ministry of Justice could also address the ie of possible reparations, as well as an extension of statutes of limitations. But at the heart of the matter, beyond any disgruntlement, is a return to focus on the real ie to which both sides are committed: Dealing with past cases of sexual abuse and preventing future ones.

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