“Trust in the church is at stake”

Reforms in the Catholic Church's handling of sexual abuse by priests demanded by pastoral theologian emeritus Hanspeter Heinz. The guidelines ied by the German Bishops' Conference in 2002 have brought improvements, but they are not enough, he said in an interview on Wednesday.

Professor Heinz, what impact do the cases of sexual abuse that have now become known have on the Catholic Church in Germany?
Heinz: Even if these cases often happened decades ago, they massively question the credibility of the church. And losing trust is the worst thing that can happen to a company or institution. All ministers and employees are suddenly under suspicion.
CBA: Why have dioceses and religious orders in the past covered up so much and punished such cases so little?
Heinz: Because the church cared more about its own reputation than the fate of the victims. Already since the 80's there are findings, how strongly sexual abuse burdens the victims – often even for the whole life. And yet the church was more sensitive to its own image.
CBA: Against this background, how do you judge the actions of Father Mertes, who made the cases at the Canisius College in Berlin public??
Heinz: Father Mertes does it in a very excellent way. We should have had men like him a long time ago. When dealing with such cases, it is not only important to apologize and help the victims. It must also be about the Catholic Church dealing with its guilt, naming the perpetrators and the concealers, and exposing the structures that make such things possible.
CBA: Why is this so important?
Heinz: The truth is very important, because unresolved guilt weighs on lives for generations. In this context, the Ecumenical Kirchentag in Munich stands out negatively to me. There should be an event on this topic there, together with representatives from Ireland, where numerous church abuse cases in children's homes have come to light. The church congress management rejected this offer and instead entrusted Caritas and Diakonie with its implementation. But they are biased, because they themselves are responsible bodies for many children's and youth homes. That's why they are not the right organizers for such a forum.
CBA: In 2002, the German Bishops' Conference adopted guidelines for dealing with sexual abuse. Has the practice improved since then?
Heinz: There are clear improvements, but also still many shortcomings. For example, all dioceses have appointed contact persons to whom victims can turn. The idea, however, was to commission independent experts to reduce the threshold fear of the victims. However, in almost half of the dioceses, de facto church officials have been named. But they are not independent enough to take away the fear of the victims. That is not enough.
CBA: The shunting yard is also conspicuous: one has simply sent offenders to other tasks, parishes or dioceses, without informing the new offices about incidents. Has this improved?
Heinz: It was irresponsible to use such people in a similar field of work and again give them the opportunity to abuse children and young people. And that, although it is well known that such sexual imprints are usually no longer correctable. At most, one can learn to deal with it and no longer actively act it out. In my estimation, the church now handles such cases much more cautiously. Whether this happens everywhere and in every case, however, I cannot survey.
CBA: Father Mertes has stated that structural problems in the Catholic Church also encourage sexual abuse, including a one-sided condemnation of homosexuality. Do you see it that way too?
Heinz: I see it similarly. In recent years, the Vatican and many officials have denigrated homosexuality as a disease and blamed it for the tendency to sexually abuse children. This does not correspond in any way to modern scientific knowledge; some current Vatican documents do not betray a hint of it.
CBA: So homosexuality is not the real problem…
Heinz: People use homophobia as a distraction from the real problems: The cause of sexual abuse is a lack of psycho-sexual maturity, an inadequate confrontation with one's own sexuality. And this can happen with homosexuals just as it does with heterosexuals.
CBA: Does celibacy favor such practices??
Heinz: The celibate lifestyle attracts such people who have not sufficiently come to terms with their sexuality or who want to hide their sexual orientation. These people mistakenly think that as celibates they don't have to account for their proclivities. And they do not have to justify to the outside world why they are not in a partnership.
CBA: What does this mean for priestly formation??
Heinz: That means more psychologists and therapists need to be present in seminaries to recognize such problems. Spiritual accompaniment is not enough. There is a lot of catching up to do.
CBA: Doesn't this also mean that celibacy should be abolished?
Heinz: Celibacy is a reasonable way of life, if one actively accepts it and not just accepts it. Of course, this is especially true for religious. Something else is whether compulsory celibacy for secular priests is still appropriate in today's situation of pastoral care. I consider him a pastoral disaster, because the number of priests in all Western countries has been declining sharply for decades, which means that the Eucharist can be celebrated in parishes less and less often. Because enabling the celebration of the Eucharist is far more important than the Church's tradition of compulsory celibacy. Interview: Christoph Arens

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