Educator, theologian and pioneer in coming to terms with abuse

Educator, theologian and pioneer in coming to terms with abuse

Father Klaus Mertes © Julia Steinbrecht (KNA)

Klaus Mertes gives up leadership of Jesuit school Sankt Blasien in the Black Forest and moves into pastoral care. Since 2010, he has been the driving force behind coming to terms with abuse in the Catholic Church. Against some odds.

"Despite the Corona crisis, the schools should now immediately reopen completely," demands Klaus Mertes. Because children and young people need school as a place of common life and social closeness. In view of growing violence against children even as a "shelter" – of this the pedagogue and outgoing director of the renowned Jesuit school Kolleg Sankt Blasien is convinced. And therefore, the well-being of children and young people should not in principle take a back seat to concerns about possible Corona infection risks for teachers.

Mertes is aware that his clear words are not met with undivided sympathy by all his fellow teachers. But that does not prevent the Jesuit from taking a strong stance in order to initiate debates and changes. And thereby also accepting personal hostility. This applies to Corona ies as well as to the uncovering and processing of sexual abuse in the area of the Catholic Church, which Mertes decisively advanced in recent years.

Parting long agreed

At the end of the school year, the 65-year-old will now leave the College of Saint Blasien. "The parting had been so agreed for a long time. I look forward to a few Sabbath weeks for pausing and reflection. After that, I want to work as a pastor: preaching, giving retreats, administering sacraments. Because of Corona, it is not yet clear exactly when and where", says Mertes. He will remain active as author of "Voices of Time" magazine.

As a teacher to educate children and young people and to accompany them in the development of their personality – that is what the educator understands as his vocation. "School is the place where children can learn to ask themselves life-defining questions about meaning, about justice, about God." He describes being a teacher as a "beautiful, but at the same time existentially serious profession".

Abuse made public

Mertes is known to the public above all for his role in coming to terms with sexual abuse. In 2010, as the then head of the Jesuit high school Canisius-Kolleg in Berlin, he made public that Jesuit teachers had abused students for years.

He thus initiated a nationwide reappraisal – even against initially considerable resistance within the church. Meanwhile, an investigation commissioned by the bishops' conference revealed the extent of the suffering and abuse. In church files from 1946 to 2014, experts found evidence of nationwide 3.677 victims of sexual assault and on about 1.670 accused priests, deacons and religious.

He is critical of a narrow focus on compensation and damages for pain and suffering: "Of course, the church must pay damages for pain and suffering. But money does not create peace. The crucial thing is to listen to the victims and believe them."

Mertes believes that the church, schools and parishes are now in a good position to prevent abuse. He is less convinced that it has been possible on a broad basis to come to terms with the deeper, specifically ecclesiastical causes of abuse – "for example, when it comes to clericalism or speech bans". He also sees room for improvement as far as the independence of the reappraisal is concerned.

Asking uncomfortable questions again and again

Perhaps Mertes has not made a great church career also because he always asks uncomfortable questions: "Whoever believes to have already understood the consequences of abuse cannot really approach the suffering of those affected. Understanding begins with not understanding."

Mertes considered the award of an honorary doctorate from the Catholic Faculty of Theology at the University of Freiburg a year ago to be a true tribute. Laudator Magnus Striet justified the award by saying that Mertes had made a decisive contribution to breaking the spiral of silence in the church through concrete action and theological reflection.

After his departure from the southern Black Forest, Mertes wants to preach, accompany, marry and bury as a "normal pastor". And then adds: "If the matter requires it, I will continue to speak out publicly."

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