Statute of limitations and deaths

Statute of limitations and deaths

Model replica of the Justitia © Volker Hartmann

Many victims are disappointed: Not only in Bavaria there will hardly be new criminal proceedings against abusers. Almost all cases are time-barred. The major study of 2018 does not change this either.

For the Catholic dioceses in Germany, the results of the abuse study (MHG study) in 2018 were a shock: At the latest then, it became clear to the bishops that it was not a matter of individual cases, but that the abuse in the Catholic Church apparently also has structural causes and it is not only the fault of individuals, but also a systemic failure.

Files from all over Germany from 1946 onward, in which cases from 1918 onward were brought up, proved the extent of the phenomenon. The researchers named certain risk factors such as celibacy – the celibacy of priests – and power structures in the church.

Study in Bavaria: Almost all cases barred by statute of limitations

The chairman of the German Bishops' Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, spoke of horror, disgust and shame after the study was published. He as well as the abuse commissioner of the Bishops' Conference, Stephan Ackermann, promised consequences. And they once again ared cooperation with the state authorities.

Now comes from Bavaria a first result. According to this law, after evaluation of the files by the public prosecutors, there will probably be no criminal investigations, because almost all cases are time-barred and in other cases there is no sufficient suspicion of the crime.

How could it come to this conclusion? The key is the difference between historical reappraisal on the one hand, and criminal investigation and prosecution on the other. Unlike historical investigation, legal investigation is bound to legal statutes of limitations and strict legal criteria for a criminal offense.

Extension of the statute of limitations: Today 33 to 50 years

The dioceses had handed over the files, which had previously been evaluated by the scientists of the MHG study, to the public prosecutors – even when the alleged perpetrators had already died. That's what happened in Bavaria – with the results made public over the weekend. Almost all investigations against suspected church representatives who are still alive have been discontinued, the media report.

Criminal law is clean: the statute of limitations for abuse victims was last extended again by the Bundestag in 2015. All acts before 2013 – and that is more than 95 percent of the cases from the MHG study – still fall under the old, "milder" statute of limitations law.

Only after that, the age of the victim, from which the statute of limitations counts, was raised to 30 years. The time limit itself is now 20 years for serious sexual abuse, so today the statute of limitations is effectively 33 to 50 years. Before 2013, cases were already statute-barred after 11 to 28 years.

Abuse study only a "show"?

Despite these facts, criminologist Christian Pfeiffer says that the MHG study was only a "show" and demands the resignation of Reinhard Cardinal Marx from the presidency of the Bishops' Conference. Pfeiffer's relationship with the German Bishops' Conference has long been strained. Once he was supposed to conduct the big abuse study, but then he fell out with the bishops over the methods for such an investigation.

Since criminal prosecution is obviously no longer effective, the ways of coming to terms with the past and compensation for victims become all the more important. In this way, even crimes that have escaped prosecution can be named and at least begin to be atoned for.

There are different models for compensation, which, according to media reports, could amount to a total of up to one billion euros for the entire Catholic Church in Germany.

By Birgit Wilke

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