Abuse by priests? "Terrible – but that was usually a long time ago," it is often said. And much is also being done to prevent it, he said. A new study says the problem is not yet out of the woods – and is causing debate.
Are there fewer abuse allegations against priests, because the Catholic Church has been more intensively concerned with prevention since 2010? And do priests become perpetrators less often than other men??
These are the questions addressed by a team of researchers led by Mannheim psychiatrist Harald Drebing, who was also coordinator of the MHG abuse study published last year by the Bishops' Conference.
The result in brief: Even though the absolute number of current abuse allegations against priests has decreased compared to previous years, the rate compared to the total number of priests has not decreased significantly since 2009, according to the study, nor has the rate of corresponding criminal charges against clergy.
Drebing: Prevention meets "granite" with priests
When asked, Drebing told the Catholic News Agency (KNA) that one possible explanation is that prevention "meets with granite" among some priests as long as "structural risk factors" such as clerical power, celibacy or church sexual morality remain unchanged. The spokesman for the victims' association Eckiger Tisch, Matthias Katsch, also called for structural reforms beyond prevention, as well as "a kind of truth commission in which civil society, with the participation of representatives of the church as well as those affected," should work through the cases even more thoroughly.
The new study uses data from the MHG study and compares it with general crime statistics. Specifically, it is about evidence of abuse in the personnel files of priests and deacons from the years 2009 to 2015. The new study only takes into account current accusations and criminal charges and not accusations of crimes from the years before 2009. Moreover, it is exclusively a matter of assaults against children who were younger than 14 years at the time of the offence.
Study does not give absolute figures
What makes the evaluation difficult: the study does not give absolute numbers, but extrapolated rates per 100.000 people, to allow for comparison to the overall male population aged 18 and older.
The researchers come to the conclusion that the rate of accused priests in the years 2009 to 2015 was three times below and four times above the rate recorded in police statistics ("crime suspect load number") in the total male population.
In 2015, for example, the rate for reported priests was 26.0 per 100.000, in the total population at 17.6 per 100.000. Even if one takes into account the methodological limitations in this comparison, one can at least not confirm the amption that priests are less likely to become perpetrators because of their particularly moral attitude and responsibility, the researchers said.
As for the trend in charges against priests over time, the rate starts at 38.8 per 100.000 in 2009. (From 2010 to 2015: 55.5 – 32.4 – 41.2 – 50.2 – 25.5 – 33.4). In concrete terms, this means, using the example of 2015: 33.4 accused priests per 100.000 results in the total number of Catholic priests in Germany in 2015 of around 14.000 an absolute number of 4.7 new accused.
"Low single-digit number of accused priests" per year
With such low numbers of cases involving priests, however, the problem becomes apparent that even one or two accusations more or less per year cause the rates to go up or down significantly right away. The extent to which a trend can actually be established here remains questionable.
"For all the years considered, we are talking about a low single-digit number of accused priests," Drebing also emphasized, "But the crucial thing is that the rate is not getting smaller."In his view, the new study makes it clear that "sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests is an ongoing problem, not a historical one". The study authors therefore call for prevention work to be intensified – especially among priests.
The fact that, on the other hand, not a single new accusation against a full-time deacon has been recorded in the files nationwide since 2010 could possibly be attributed to the "non-existent obligation of celibacy" among deacons and a "significantly lower endowment of clerical power," according to the authors. It should be noted here, however, that the total number of full-time deacons is still much smaller than that of priests – in 2015, for example, it was 1.234.
When asked about comparable rates from years before 2009, Drebing said they could not be reliably calculated. This is mainly due to the fact that there are no reliable figures on the total number of priests in that period. Data from various sources differed by up to 100 percent in some cases.
Archdiocese of Cologne and Diocese of Rottenburg Stuttgart cannot confirm study
In a first reaction, the diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart pointed out that the development was different, at least in its own diocese.
Here, one priest had been accused in 2011 and one in 2014, and none since then.
For the Archdiocese of Cologne, the intervention officer Oliver Vogt explained in the Cologne in the interview, also for the archdiocese he could not confirm the results of the study for current allegations in the period from 2009 to 2015. Nonetheless, he said, the overall number of abuse allegations has not declined.
However, 90 percent of these were related to cases from earlier times. Vogt assessed this as an effect of the prevention measures introduced, because "there is a significantly increased sensitivity to the ie".
According to the 2018 MHG study, church files from 1946 to 2014 contained references to 3 priests nationwide.677 victims of sexual assault and on about 1.670 accused priests, deacons and religious found. Recently, the church announced plans to create a new institute to fight abuse. It worked with scientists, specialized organizations, prevention experts and victims of sexualized violence.