Since the extent of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Germany became known in 2010, the bishops have repeatedly affirmed their will to clarify the matter. What has happened since then and how are those affected doing??
Interviewer: Ms. Andresen, you published a study on abuse in the church context in 2018 and spoke with many victims for it. What does it mean for these people if they are constantly confronted with it now that the topic is very present in the public and the media?
Prof. Sabine Andresen (Chairwoman of the Independent Commission for the Reappraisal of Sexual Child Abuse): It's very different. There are people for whom it is very important, because they get the impression that they are not alone with their experiences. Because they often had this feeling as children and also later as adults. But many also wonder why this is such a big ie only now and what role they, as victims, play in coming to terms with it.
And there will be others who no longer want to deal with it personally and incriminate themselves. Some certainly also because they have lost trust and do not have the impression that the church is sincerely interested in coming to terms with the situation.
Interviewer: Most of those affected have made the experience that they were not believed: not as children when they were abused. And not as adults who try to address the ie. Accusations were trivialized and not taken seriously. What does that do to people??
Andresen: It leads to a feeling of powerlessness and being at the mercy of both children and adults. Because children actually know at a young age that what is being done to them is wrong and that they don't want it, even if they don't have the language for it yet. But if they then experience that the environment does not react to their signals and does not stop the deeds, then the child gets the impression: What is happening here is right. And it is my fault that I find this wrong or that this is done to me.And if the child then experiences that the perpetrator, for example a priest, continues to be shown reverence and respect, this leads to confusion and injury.
Many of those affected reported to us as a commission that they felt similarly when they turned to church institutions as adults. They were also rejected there, they were again not believed, there was an attempt to trivialize and cover up acts.
And one has to ask oneself why it is in the church of all places, which claims to protect the weak and vulnerable, that people have to go through such experiences.
Interviewer: Do you have an explanation for this?
Andresen: One reason is certainly the power relations, the strong hierarchical relationship of the clergy to the laity. You don't have to kid yourself about that: It also shapes people's self-image if they perceive themselves as superior because of their role, if they have and exercise power. Apparently, in the past, some clergy have exploited this power imbalance with children, but also with adult victims. We observe that victims of abuse are quickly devalued by questioning their credibility or by being blamed for their actions. This is a perfidious strategy of the perpetrator.
And there's also the question of awareness of wrongdoing: child sexual abuse has long been a criminal offense. No one can say that this was not known. And now studies are revealing how those responsible within the church have evaded prosecution, treat acts internally within the church, and cover up knowledge about perpetrators and acts. These are questions of structure and ideology, which will hopefully be further clarified by means of reappraisal.
Interviewer: What can reappraisal achieve, what do those affected want??
Andresen: Many of those affected would like to see a clearly visible will to clarify and come to terms with the situation and a clear acceptance of responsibility by institutions. Without back door. When facts prove that acts were covered up, perpetrators protected, and victims not helped, they expect responsibility to be taken.
For some victims it is important that they are asked for forgiveness and that they have the possibility to grant or deny it. And many want an acknowledgement of the injustice and suffering that has been inflicted on them and that they have to continue to live with. One of the consequences of the abuse is that many live on the edge of the subsistence level because they are not able to work for a longer period of time due to their health or because they had to pay for the therapies themselves. Some have taken early retirement because they can't stand the prere anymore. These are economic consequences that need to be taken into account and reflected in financial recognition. But the most important standard in coming to terms with it is that it must not lead to inflicting suffering on those affected once again.
Interviewer: You say those affected would like to see an unconditional will to clear things up. Do you see this in German dioceses?
Andresen: I already see that since 2010, when the Jesuit priest Klaus Mertes made abuse cases at his school public, a lot has happened. My impression is that there are different speeds in the dioceses. And if I look not only at the bishops, I see many who have the will to make progress in the church. Therefore, these forces should be strengthened so that reprocessing can be advanced in the interest of affected persons.
But there are also those who are – to put it politely – very hesitant and looking for a back door. It now depends very much on how the declaration that the Independent Commissioner for Child Sexual Abuse concluded with the German Bishops' Conference in 2020 is implemented in each diocese. Perhaps other forms of independent reappraisal will be needed at some point. But the crucial question is: How much longer can affected people wait? With acts that happened decades ago and victims who are getting older and older, it is also a question of time.
The interview was conducted by Ina Rottscheidt.