The Catholic Church has been guilty in its dealings with perpetrators and victims of sexual abuse for many years. Mistakes were also made in the Archdiocese of Cologne. This is now admitted by a former responsible person.
Prelate Robert Kumpel was head of personnel from 1984 to 1996 and rector of the seminary for eight years. In Cologne, he was also the contact person for victims of sexual abuse from 2008 onwards. In the interview, he looks back.
Interviewer: In talking with you, we want to try to better understand how the topic of sexual abuse was handled during your active time. You were head of personnel at the Archdiocese of Cologne for a long time, was the problem of sexual abuse an ie at that time?
Prelate Robert Kumpel: It was an ie at the time only insofar as there were individual cases, but it was not at the forefront as it is today.
Interviewer: For almost twelve years, from 1984 to 1996, you were the head of department responsible for church personnel. Can you recall how many cases of sexual abuse by priests there were during your term of office?
Kumpel: In the Archdiocese of Cologne, according to the MHG study, there were a total of 87 accused in the period from 1946 to 2014. I myself did not experience ten cases during my time as personnel manager. The fact is that many of those affected were only able to talk openly about these crimes 20, 30, sometimes 40 years after they happened. Often the perpetrators were already deceased by then, and we only became aware of the crimes after the fact.
Interviewer: You say there were only a few individual cases. Ame that everything really did pass over your desk? Or may there have been cases that were perhaps dealt with directly at the level of the cardinal or vicar general?
Kumpel: I'm pretty sure that all the cases that arrived came to my attention. After all, Cardinals Hoffner and Meisner did practically nothing independently. Whenever a case arose, I discussed it with the archbishop. The case then came to the staff conference. There, it was considered: What can be done? Then a decision was made.
Interviewer: That is, all the members of the staff conference were aware of the individual cases at the time and together they discussed how to proceed?
Kumpel: There were hardly any cases that passed this panel by. To that extent, there was always a joint discussion, for example, about the leave of absence or suspension of an offender. The committee advised the bishop – of course, the archbishop then always made the final decision.
Interviewer: In an interview, the Archbishop of Hamburg, Werner Thissen, reflected very critically in retrospect on his role as the church's personnel manager in Munster. Do you share his assessment?
Kumpel: For our diocese less. I don't remember us in the Archdiocese of Cologne saying that there was nothing we could do, because the priest who had abused someone was already punished enough. But I think that we could have acted differently on many points.
Interviewer: What do you mean specifically?
Kumpel: As a rule, when a case came to light, the perpetrator was immediately removed from the ministry. Then the first thing to think about was: What can be done? What happened in the first place? We made an effort to analyze the facts, and then – when it was clear to us – we considered whether it was even possible to continue to use the priest in ministry at all. We sent the perpetrator – as far as I remember – without exception to a renowned psychotherapist. The then assessed him whether and, if so, how and where a future assignment might be possible. This was then considered very carefully. In retrospect, I would say today – and I blame myself for this – what didn't go well: I should have been more committed to taking much stricter and more consistent action against these offenders.
Interviewer: Did the victim perspective play as big a role then as it does today?
Kumpel: No. That must be said quite clearly. At that time, we were not yet as aware of the scope of these crimes as we are today. I became the contact person for clerical sexual abuse from 2008 onwards. Actually, it was only then in individual conversations that I got to know what catastrophic dislocations and suffering were caused in the lives of young people by experiences of abuse. I remember the case of a teenager who was abused at the age of 15, 16, as was his brother. The brother later committed suicide. The person concerned went to his parents, reported the abuse and was then beaten up by his father so badly that he broke an arm. People said: it can't be. A priest does not do such a thing. Today, of course, everything is completely different. Today we know about these things and about the terribly painful long-term effects that sexual abuse can have on people.
Interviewer: The accusation against the church is that it has always had the protection of its own system in mind. Is the accusation justified?
Kumpel: That is a bit one-sided for me. In our decisions at that time, we were already looking at the fact that, if possible, no further damage happened. But I admit that was not consistent enough. I know that I twice suggested in the staff conference that such perpetrators be retired without much ado. This earned me an indulgent smile from my colleagues at the time. But that would have been a signal that the authorities of the church deal consistently with such cases – a signal to all sorts of other possible offenders. Such signs would have been important at that time.
Interviewer: Were you given clear guidelines even on the part of the vicars general at the time, on the part of the archbishops at the time, in cases of abuse??
Kumpel: There was no fixed order like today. We tried to handle the cases with common sense. But of course this was faulty from today's point of view. It starts with things that are actually quite banal – such as our personnel record keeping. At that time, we had a system that was actually not one at all. Everything that happened to certain people was simply stapled into a folder. It was also not he every single decision and its justification a file note written.
Interviewer: Was there, as is always rumored, a secret poison cabinet for special personnel files??
Kumpel: Yes, there was a secret cabinet where such cases were stored. This was to ensure that access to files was limited to just a few people. These files should then be destroyed every ten years, according to the Codex regulation. But that was not always done consistently. Today, I think it is important that such files are no longer destroyed at all, so that the decisions made can still be traced later on.
Interviewer: There is a difference between the cases identified in the MHG study and the cases in which canon law was invoked in the Archdiocese of Cologne. How do you explain this difference??
Kumpel: As far as I know, for many years there was no canonical criminal trial of abusers at all. Those in charge did their best to resolve the cases at the administrative level. There were certainly the appropriate means to do so. The bishop could decide, could suspend priests and could retire offenders. That was all possible, but canonical trials were hardly ever conducted in this way, as far as I can remember.
Interviewer: From 2008, you were the contact person for those affected by sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Cologne. At what point did the Church really change its perspective on abuse??
Kumpel: I remember a case from 2008. At the time, a newspaper reporter told me that he was surprised at the way our archdiocese had handled the abuse case. At that time, the vicar general went and read a proclamation in the parish where the perpetrator had worked for many years as a pastor, personally. Possible victims were asked to come forward so that we could provide assistance and also find out what really happened. That was the first "shot" with which the archdiocese made very clear at the time: There is no cover-up. Every case from then on was consistently prosecuted.
Interviewer: You have a very long experience in many different areas of the church. Among other things, you were the rector of the seminary. In your opinion, what needs to be changed in the church?
Kumpel: I think a lot has already changed, thank God! When I read the new order that was passed on 1. If you look at the document that was published on January 1, in which really clear behavioral guidelines are provided for all those involved – contact persons, those affected, perpetrators, the establishment of an advisory council for those affected, and the like – then you can see how attentive church representatives have become, especially to the suffering of those affected. This has been a painful process for all involved. Today there is no pardon for perpetrators. Guilty priests are consistently held accountable and no longer used. This is an important signal to society and to the church. This is the only way to regain the trust of the faithful as well.
Interviewer: What do you think about the discussion on compensation??
Kumpel: I think it is absolutely right that the perpetrators should be called upon to compensate the victims. Not only when it comes to financing therapies or the like, but also with regard to the payment of damages for pain and suffering. The problem is that many of the perpetrators have already passed away. I also think that the financial amounts should be higher than the previous payments in recognition of the suffering inflicted.
Interviewer: With what feelings do you look forward to the results of the independent investigation, which the Archdiocese of Cologne plans to publish soon??
Kumpel: On the one hand, I'm curious about what was found out there. Because I do think that the independent lawyers are working carefully. Whether the staff of a law firm can always empathize with the church situation as it was then, I don't know. But in my opinion, it is very important to make sure that the expected proposals for change in the investigation report are also taken seriously.
Interviewer: You were responsible for the formation of young priests as Regens for many years. Has something changed there?
Kumpel: When I was Regens, after the first news about sexual abuse by clergy, we held our own multi-day training block on abuse. At that time we did it in collaboration with a pediatrician and psychotherapist. She presented the topic in a very decisive and committed way and made an effort to prepare the young future priests well for the situation in the parishes and in our church associations. Today we have regular prevention courses. I still think it is very helpful and useful to offer such events on a regular basis.
Interviewer: Priestly life is a big area, which will now also be discussed in the context of the Synodal Way. What experience can you bring to the table?
Kumpel: It is important that priests take great care of their physical and mental health. I always urged the seminarians to make sure that they cultivate good relationships with other people, that they are aware of friendships, and that they don't just throw themselves into work, so that they also have a human-emotional home. The question of whether celibacy should be abolished or not is a completely different question for me. Personally, I cannot imagine total abolition. But in the overall situation of the church, we should already think about what other solutions are possible and necessary, for example, for countries such as in the Amazon region.
Interviewer: One point that is often discussed is the possible loneliness of priests. How do you experience? Are you lonely?
Kumpel: I do not feel that way. But I have also always tried to maintain relationships. I lived in a shared apartment with others for ten years and now I have a housekeeper who accompanies me. I think that is important. Loneliness, of course, also depends on how far I myself go emotionally toward other people. After all, celibacy isn't just about not doing something you'd actually like to do, it's about offering your emotional strength to others, whether children and young people or the sick, the elderly, people in need, or whatever groups you're in. Where I do this, I experience again and again that these people are very grateful and happy that a priest has time and attention for them. For my part, I have always received a lot of affection back from these people.
Interviewer: When you look back on a long and fulfilling life in priestly service, what advice do you have for those who bear responsibility in the church today??
Kumpel: It would be important to ask about the signs of the times, to take them seriously and to ask about God's will for our situation today – and not to rule out every change in the church from the outset.
The interview was conducted by the editor-in-chief of the church newspaper, Robert Boecker, and the editor-in-chief of our site, Ingo Bruggenjurgen.
Info: At that time, the personnel conference included, in addition to the archbishop, the vicar general, the auxiliary bishops and the officiant, the rector of the seminary, the director of the Department of Pastoral Care Personnel, and the director of the diocesan office of Pastoral Accompaniment. Since Cardinal Woelki took office, the board has been supplemented by the heads of the main departments of school, pastoral care and pastoral care areas, as well as the deputy head of the main department of pastoral care.