“Church as a whole is called into question”

Father Klaus Mertes © KNA

On the Day of Remembrance for Victims of Sexual Abuse, Jesuit Father Klaus Mertes talks about spiritual abuse and its terrible consequences for those affected – and also for the institution of the Church.

Editor's note: This is the second part of the interview. Read here the first part. The interview is part of the program Menschen, which you can listen to here.

Interviewer: In the course of the publication of the abuse study of the German Bishops' Conference, there was also talk of "spiritual abuse". What must be imagined?

Mertes: This term is used to describe something that affects people and groups in which people claim to be able to tell others what God's will is for them. So a spiritual and religious ie in the strict sense of the word, where religion and religious language is misused to gain spiritual power over people.

Interviewer: This is another new level in the big topic of "abuse in the Catholic Church", isn't it??

Mertes: Yes. This also has something to do with the particular height of the case. I have met many victims of sexual abuse in the Church who have told me that the sexual abuse is not the worst thing, although of course it is bad, but behind it is once again this spiritual abuse. Namely, ultimately the misuse of the name of Jesus or the name of God in the sense of the first commandment, "You shall not take the name of God or the name of Jesus in vain". This name of Jesus has been misused to gain closeness. Because many of those affected have been deeply religious people who have gone in search of God, of an experience of closeness to God, and in that context have been abused.

Then there are many who say to me: we have not been sexually abused, but what has been done to us in spiritual guidance or also in certain authoritarian religious groups is for us an experience just as devastating as sexual abuse.

Not all abuse is therefore sexual abuse. There is this spiritual abuse without sexual abuse, which is religiously seen and for religiously seeking people just as devastating as the sexual abuse by clergymen. Even if the clergyman ultimately seeks only sexual pleasure for himself and does not once again explicitly claim the position of God for himself, as can be the case in authoritarian groups.

Interviewer: So the spiritual abuse is always there, because it is a clergyman who satisfies his sexual lust?

Mertes: Yes, that is correct. That is one thing. But there are also other systems that are authoritarian in structure.

I'll take an area from the extra-ecclesial. I first encountered the phenomenon of spiritual abuse with the friend of a schoolmate who, after graduating from high school, got involved in the Moon sect and was financially exploited there. He was not sexually exploited, but after a few weeks he was ready to submit to this sectarian system.

That's when it first became clear to me how terribly religious power can brainwash people and completely and totally incapacitate them. This then runs through manipulation to the point of open violence that is allowed to take hold of you. It often ends in suicide. It is a wound that, once you have made your way out, remains until the end of your life, similar to the wound caused by sexual abuse.

Not every sexual abuse by a priest has this sectarian context again. But frighteningly enough, it also exists in Christianity, in the Protestant Church – among evangelicals – as well as in the Catholic Church. In the course of the last few years, many people have contacted me and others who have had such experiences and who find themselves in very difficult detachment processes, in fears or also in deep feelings of guilt. They are stigmatized as traitors or stigmatize themselves as traitors because they have realized where they are. But the step out they do not manage yet or only under the condition that they radically detach themselves from Christianity as a whole. These are very big topics.

Interviewer: Has this ie really reached the core of the church??

Mertes: I hope that it arrives. I think it will take some time. The term itself is still controversial. We also still have to find a language. It's similar to sexual abuse. The most important thing is to first find an appropriate language. Here we are. I have published articles on this topic myself over the last two or three years and have tried to see the term as a way of approaching the phenomenon. I also know that the ie is becoming more and more important in the Bishops' Conference itself.

Interviewer: And in the universal church?

Mertes: I do not know. However, it is quite clear that there have been and had to be movements in Rome as well to address such phenomena. I will give an example: The most famous and notorious case of sexual abuse by a founder of a religious order was that of the Legionaries of Christ, by Marcial Maciel. Now, one cannot simply isolate sexual abuse from the entire spiritual system. Then also Pope Benedict XVI. intervened. For example, in the Legionaries of Christ there was an explicit ban on silence, you were not allowed to criticize superiors publicly. Criticism could only be expressed personally. This vow was then dissolved by Pope Benedict for this order.

This was a classic authoritarian structure in which the whole thing took place. Such an authoritarian structure usually – if it takes place in a religious order – still has a religious-ideological background, respectively key concepts of ecclesiastical piety and also of the Gospel, such as obedience, devotion to life or following the cross, are instrumentalized here in order to create a spirituality that in the end legitimizes authoritarian relationship structures. Getting out of that is a very big task. But this also calls into question the church as a whole, because the key concepts of Christianity and Christian theology have been contaminated by the abuse and can now no longer be simply put into one's mouth without knowing about the abuse and what this abuse has done to those who have lived in this system of abuse.

A person who has been exploited labor-wise, financially, psychologically and, in the end, sexually, will hear the word devotion, which remains a key word for Christian self-understanding, with different ears when Christ's devotion of life is spoken of. Then we in the church need to start thinking through these terms again. This is also an opportunity, because it creates the possibility to fill these classical terms with new life, by separating them from their susceptibility to abuse.

The interview was conducted by Angela Krumpen.

Editor's note: This is the second part of the interview. Read the first part here. The interview is part of the program Menschen, which you can listen to here.

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