Father Klaus Mertes © Julian Stratenschulte
In 2010, Father Mertes set the ball rolling in coming to terms with sexualized violence, for which he recently received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. In the interview, he explains how the church would have to change in order to combat abuse in the long term.
Interviewer: You have just been awarded the Federal Cross of Merit by Federal President Walter Steinmeier together with Matthias Katsch. What pleased you?
Father Klaus Mertes (former. Director of the Canisius College in Berlin): I was pleased that, through this honor, the Federal President, on behalf of the public, said something that I would not have been able to say from my side. Namely, he saw something in common with Matthias Katsch as a representative of the "Eckiger Tisch", that is the victim institution of Jesuit schools, and me. Although we also have a history of conflict behind us. I interpreted this for me in such a way that I succeeded in maintaining respect for each other despite remaining interests and differences of opinion, and thus in getting something rolling together. I was very happy about that.
Interviewer: In your acceptance speech you tell us that recognizing abuse is a process.
Mertes: In the Gospel there is a healing of the blind and after the first touch of the blind man by Jesus, the blind man says that he sees people who look like trees and are walking around. And then it takes a second touch until he is then healed and actually sees people as they are. And it also happened to me in the same way. Before 2010, I had talked with victims of abuse from completely different contexts, e.g. from the Jesuit schools. B. as a teacher to students from family contexts, to do so. And only after 2010 did I realize that yes, this was sexual abuse. What they have experienced, that is, the violence of sexual abuse, is something that does not reveal itself at first glance. And that became very clear to me again in 2010, when it was revealed to me through the narration of the three men who were with me.
Interviewer: My impression is that there are a lot of people who hear the word and somehow associate it with something terrible, but don't know what it means.
Mertes: It is just quite difficult to imagine that it is an act of violence that happens in the close range. Most confuse sexual abuse with rape: So a perpetrator who is recognizable as a perpetrator does something to a victim, and the victim recognizes at the moment it is done to her that it is violence. But it's not like that, but at first the impression arises that the act of violence is an expression of love or a just punishment for a guilt that one has brought upon oneself, from an authority that acts and punishes justly. Or that it is a pedagogical, meaningful measure that should serve one's own growth. One agrees with this emotionally.
Why not react?
Quite often it is even the case that I, as a young person, first approach the perpetrator because it is my favorite priest or my favorite uncle or my mother or my father or whoever it may be. And because I look for security there. And in this feeling of security I experience something that I myself, as the person affected, do not understand as violence. That opens up to me even as a person affected only after the fact. And then it's all the more difficult for the third parties, the people involved, to understand that. And the second thing that is so difficult to understand: Why did those who saw it and could have interpreted it, because they were adults, because they could see more than I could, not react?? So also immediately this experience, that I was completely alone with this experience.
Interviewer: So it's about how we can all deal with it better, more adequately and, as a result, perhaps more easily. To realize that it's a process for everybody, that's helpful, isn't it??
Mertes: Yes, and that's very important, because going public is first of all a huge step for the people affected. I'm not talking about the victims at the moment, when they themselves don't even understand what has been done to them, when they stutter and try to tell their parents something and are then rejected. I'm talking about those who, 20 years later, suddenly realize in the course of therapy that what they experienced was violence and who, in the meantime, are perhaps married and have children. And the family does not want it to become visible that the father or the mother are victims of sexualized violence. When they come out of the closet, they do so in a social system in which they live. And this social system does not want them to be visible as victims. That's a huge problem, especially since they are then held jointly responsible. At the moment when they were perhaps already there, at the time when it happened, so the parents, for example, or in the case of the school, the teachers who were teaching at the time.
Why didn't I say anything?
There were two priests who committed crimes against more than 100 young people. None of the colleagues saw it, but they may have heard and felt it and did nothing. 20 years later they hear that and then of course they realize immediately: Oh, why didn't I see that? Or did I see that back then? Why did I not say anything? So feelings of guilt arise and feelings of guilt make aggressive. It is important in this context: victims have a need for protection at the moment they speak and this must be respected. There's also such a radical, brute force approach to disclosure that doesn't respect the protective needs of victims. And this very often has something to do with the fact that those who drive this brute course do not even understand what it is, "to be a victim", but simply think they are standing up for a just cause, pushing forward with big elbows and then again basically pushing the victims down into silence or grabbing them on the abuse of their own ideas. And thus ultimately only show again that they have not understood what they are talking about.
Interviewer: Violence against children and young people always frightens people. But sexualized violence is also much more frightening for all the reasons you have just mentioned. What happens when people in a parish suddenly learn that a priest raped a child decades ago??
Mertes: Yes, of course it's a huge scare. First of all, it is information that one does not want to take note of, because perhaps this priest means a lot to one and because one has confided in him, because perhaps one owes him a great deal. And then what can't be, can't be, and then that's first fought off.
People do not want to hear them
That is the experience that victims make when they speak out. They don't want to be heard. They have a message that extremely questions their self-image and their entire history. But when it turns out that it is true, and when it turns out that the authorities knew about it and nevertheless sent the priest and the congregation or let them, then of course this leads to a massive crisis of confidence not only in the perpetrator, but even more so in the institution. And that's the situation the church finds itself in. That has an institutional trust problem more than anything else.
Interviewer: In the archdiocese of Cologne, an accused priest took his own life. It made them angry. Why?
Mertes: I know stories where a victim has decided, after long, long, agonizing years, to go up to the priest who abused him as an altar boy and confront him. And the priest, now over 80 years old, living in a nursing home, commits suicide to avoid the conversation. And that left the person involved with incredible feelings of guilt. Suicide is not simply an act that I commit against myself, but also against people to whom I have a responsibility, for whom I am jointly responsible. All the blame is pulled back on the victim who speaks. And then that also directs the anger of the system back to the victim who wanted to talk. This constellation makes me angry.
"Struggle for life and death"
I myself had to deal with a case of a confrere, where I was warned by high-ranking persons that if I accused the confrere, he would commit suicide. That's where I felt the prere myself, what it's like, that education can lead to being blamed for suicides that the perpetrators commit. Because, of course, the information that becomes public as a result has a devastating character and because, I also admit immediately, the public has nothing to offer but condemnation and pillorying. Only this cannot be the reason, then again to push the victims back into silence. A battle for life and death is being waged.
The moment there is a perpetrator, he has to go away, because of course he pollutes the whole system of families or churches or sports clubs. Behind this, however, there is exactly this institutional narcissism: we are the pure and the impure must be thrown out. Of course, we also have to look at how we can live with perpetrators? We have to learn to live with the fact that there are perpetrators who belong to us. We need to stop falling in love with this idea that there are places where there are no perpetrators. This is a human problem. That's why disclosure is so unwelcome, because it presents you with this dilemma.
Interviewer: When did you realize that there is a system in the church that allows sexualized violence??
Mertes: I understood that when I saw that the system does not react to violence when it sees it. Very simple. And there must be reasons for this.
Interviewer: That is, this was already the case in 2010?
Mertes: Yes, it was quite clear. At that time, the young people tried to speak and were not heard. And then, when they were heard after all, the perpetrators were quickly removed, sent to therapy and sent to the next schools. Then they continued. The system does not react adequately to violence. And that must have deeper reasons. I am most interested in the systemic reasons, which have to do with the problem of image loss for the institution. But then I want to understand even more deeply the incapacity. I will give an example: In the ecclesiastical code, sexual assaults against young people are filed under breach of celibacy, not under violence.
Instead of sexual violence, only breach of celibacy?
That is, the whole logic with which I hear what children and young people tell me, stores it under something similar to adultery or something like that. But not under violence, which is basically a form of extreme violence. That would be such a systemic reason. And then the ie of homosexuality comes into it. And of course this is a terrible topic in the church, because homosexual priests are not allowed to exist. And then the homosexual priests are immediately labeled as perpetrators, and then one is again fixated on the perpetrators and away from the victims. What this means for the victims does not matter at all. And that's how it was at Canisius College. The perpetrator was quickly removed. If one had listened, one would have known immediately: There must then be at least 100 victims. They have simply forgotten. So this simple forgetting of the victims, because you are fixated on the perpetrator, that is one of the systemic reasons that makes it impossible to understand.
Interviewer: When did you realize there were systemic reasons?
Mertes: I make a distinction between systematic and systemic. The perpetrators have systematically built pastoral and pedagogical systems to end up trapping young people and abusing them. The systemic aspect was already clear to me when the cases in the USA became public.
Interviewer: When you realize that this is inherent in the system, that you forget the victims, then you are even more frightened.
Mertes: And this is particularly absurd in the case of the Church, because the victims are the focus of the Gospel. I have sometimes compared this to the parable of the Good Samaritan. One is gladly prepared to stand up for victims if they are victims of violent conditions for which one bears no responsibility. This leads one away from looking at where my own perpetrators or co-perpetrators and co-responsible shares are in the fact that the victim became a victim.
Let us make ourselves accomplices?
Interviewer: Power in the Catholic Church does not lie with the laity, and certainly not with women. Staying with this system under these conditions – doesn't that make me an accomplice in a system over which I have no control at all?
Mertes: After all, I belong to the system in a different way, because I'm on the power side with them. I am a Catholic priest. I belong to the system. For me, this question has not arisen because it would be the escape from responsibility. But I understand that people leave in order to avoid becoming accomplices. I don't want to judge that either. But there is no way to change the system if there are not forces also working from within to change it. The question is, what do they need?. And they don't need my innocence organized by myself. How do we help them?? There are many affected people in the church, who still want to stay in the church or are in it. To be clear, one does not believe that there is any system outside the Church in which this does not exist. So this idea that I, as an individual, am not an accomplice anywhere, is an illusion.
I believe that one should not be too quick to define oneself as powerless. A look at the Gospel helps me here. There is a power of the powerless. I don't think you can underestimate yourself there.
Interviewer: The Archdiocese of Cologne has now published a report on how to deal with cases of sexualized violence. Did the content of the expert report shock you?
Mertes: Yes, it is distressing to see how completely helpless those in charge are in dealing with violence. The system does not have the competence, does not have the ability to fight violence. It defines itself as powerless in the face of violence. In the end, they tell the people concerned that unfortunately nothing can be done. And that brings us back to the topic of powerlessness. But that cannot be. If the institution is not able to fulfill the purpose for which it exists, namely to protect the weak from the strong, then it really is a catastrophe.
Interviewer: Why unfortunately they can not do anything?
Mertes: Because they don't have the legal means. Because they are afraid of the conflicts if they intervene. It is quite clear that perpetrators are never monsters, but often highly popular people who then have support groups in the parishes. It leads to huge conflicts. Then, when you intervene against violence, of course you yourself are also violently attacked by the support groups. To use the image of the shepherd: the shepherd must protect the sheep from the wolf, must confront the wolf. That is, he must endanger his own life.
"Then I must stand in the way of the wolf!"
This is the frightening picture I see. That is pure powerlessness and fear. Fear of aggression. I'm not saying the fears are unjustified, but that's what you have to bring when you're in charge. If my mission is to protect the sheep from the wolves, then I must stand in the way of the wolf. You can't underestimate that, after all: There are perhaps also friends of mine who have been affected. Then my friendships also break up, then my social fabric breaks up. When I stand up for those affected, it also breaks up my own friendship and social fabric. The violence is tremendous that I have to face there when I intervene. That makes fear. And exactly this is then this feeling of powerlessness.
Interviewer: This Cologne report clearly shows that lay people knew exactly what was going on. But with priests not.
Mertes: That is clericalism. A special duty of loyalty to a confederation of men, who then no longer faces the criteria that he himself applies to others. In the Gospel, that is the hypocrisy.
Interviewer: Who must take what responsibility in this case? What does it mean to take responsibility??
Mertes: For me, it was a matter of listening to the people involved and deciding whether or not to believe them. That was the first responsibility. The second responsibility was, after I had decided to believe them, to do my part in the clarification by opening procedures that make it possible for those affected to speak, so that their story is recognized by the institution. That is yes quite important for the people concerned. The third thing is to give them justice, where it is possible. So bring offenders to punishment, where that is still possible, if the offenses are not statute-barred. And to face up to the demands that they have. These are questions of compensation, questions of therapeutic help, questions of money. In the case of the cases, perhaps it also includes recognizing that I myself am so much responsible in the system and so much entangled in history that I can no longer credibly represent responsibility myself. And then comes the question of resignation. But this must not be confused with running away from responsibility. That's the easy way, to resign and then others have to work it up.
But it must also be clear what the church does not take responsibility for. And that is also the problem of Cologne. The church has no judicial function in this matter in the perpetrator-victim reconciliation between institution and victims. That is, taking responsibility would also mean giving responsibility out of one's hands into an independent institution that takes responsibility for jurisdiction and legal culture in this area. In a monarchical culture, this is not possible. And taking responsibility also means passing on to independent institutions those parts of responsibility that they can no longer take on, because they are part of the problem and not part of the solution.
Not the recovery of credibility has the highest priority
Interviewer: A new book of yours has just been published. You called it "breaking the cycle of failure". Why is there not an exit, like in a traffic circle, where you can drive out of failure?
Mertes: It is unbelievably tiring for people in the church to experience how this has been going on for eleven years now. It is always a scandal, one failure after another. Although so much good is happening, especially in the area of prevention. There has never been an institution in society that takes this ie as seriously as the Catholic Church. And that is terrible, especially for those who work in this area. They are constantly dealing with this ie and have done a lot of good, have changed a lot of things. And then comes something like in Cologne and then the whole credibility of even their own work is gone. And you are back to failure. Why do we as a church want to deal with the sexualized acts of violence?? What is the real reason? And I hear again and again, because credibility is to be regained. And if that is the reason, then we are back to ourselves again. Then it's about us. And then it must fail, because the people concerned feel that it is not about them, but about the church.
I don't think the loss of credibility of the church is a benefit to society. Not at all, it's a huge damage to society. Only this is about the problem of shaping the relationship with the people concerned. The question of justice for them needs to be addressed. And as long as they are not addressed, we can do whatever we want in prevention and structural ies. We can discuss for hours about celibacy, about the priesthood of women. But in the end, justice must first be done for those affected. And they are not interested in the questions that are then attached in the ecclesiastical discourse. There lies the problem.
Interviewer: Let's look at the women's question, the question of the access of women to ordination as deacons and priests.
Mertes: There is no doubt that the mannerbundische structure in the Catholic Church among the clergy is a systemic background for the cover-up processes we are now observing. But that is not the reason why we want to ordain women priests now. The reason is the equal dignity of men and women. The women's ie is not just an instrumental ie in terms of structural prevention from sexual abuse, is it?! This does not do justice to the question. What does the equal dignity of man and woman in Christ mean for the access to responsibility and responsible positions for the ordained ministry in the church?? That is the question. If, in order to save the image of the Church or to win back the disillusioned, we open ourselves to the question of the ordination of women to the priesthood, then we are not at the real point. The real point is one of content. And so you could go through all the questions about sexual morality, about the legal structure in the church. These questions have their dignity in themselves and are not functionally related to regaining credibility or winning back the disillusioned. It cannot be.
Interviewer: And how to get out of the cycle? Especially when you say that it is also a loss for society if the church is no longer credible and shrinks.
Mertes: I believe that at some point, the bishops in Germany will have to come to terms with the fact that they are no longer in control of the process themselves, but that they really have to hand over control to an independent institution, which then also has the right to make decisions. That is now expressed in very general terms. This would have to be thought through in more detail, but this is the way I would see it. The church can't do it alone and can't do it. This is a constant self-overload. The bishop of Belfast in Northern Ireland tells very impressively what an unbelievable relief it was for the church in Ireland that the state went into the whole story. The leading clergy, must ultimately give the control over the process out of their hands.
Interviewer: Then a situation like the one in Cologne would not have arisen, where an expert opinion is commissioned but then not published because everything is in one hand. The person who commissions the expert opinion about himself can also decide whether it is published or not.
Mertes: Exactly this expert opinion then absolves him and clears him of all sins, and then he can subsequently behead his closest associates. And then he is now the judge again. That is purely monarchically thought and purely monarchically carried out. You can't get out of history with that.
The transcription of the conversation is an abbreviated catch of the podcast "our site people".
The interview was conducted by Angela Krumpen.