“You have to keep nagging, otherwise things won't progress”

A round like this would not have been possible in 2010, says then EKD Council President Nikolaus Schneider: the ie of sexual violence has reached the Kirchentag, too.

At a church congress with the motto "Trust," the topic of abuse of trust – namely sexualized violence within the church – must not be absent. The full Dortmund Opera House at the main podium on Saturday showed that many visitors also see it that way. The fact that the panel had to be reworked – representatives of those affected were missing from the printed program – is probably also a sign of a learning process on the part of the organizers.

Sexualized violence is part of everyday life for many young people

On the other hand, coming to terms with one's own history – after all, the main perpetrator of the Odenwald School and exposed representative of reform pedagogy, Gerold Becker, was once a frequent guest at church congresses and even a member of their presidium – plays no role in the program. This aspect is now being researched, Church Congress general secretary Julia Helmke replied tight-lippedly to a journalist's question.

In the opera, Sabine Maschke, an educationalist from Marburg, made it clear to a highly concentrated audience that the experience of sexualized violence is part of the everyday life of many young people. In two representative polls under 3.000 schoolchildren in Hesse had shown that almost a quarter of them had experienced forms of physical sexual violence – from unwanted touching to rape – and almost half had experienced non-physical forms in addition.

In the case of older children, these mostly came from peers or older adolescents, and in the case of younger children, mainly from adults. Around 130 of the interviewees had these experiences in the church space.

Fehrs: Personal attitude is decisive

Hamburg Bishop Kirsten Fehrs has been intensively confronted with the ie since taking office in 2011 – her predecessor Maria Jepsen had resigned because of the scandal in Ahrensburg. She spoke of her own learning process through the numerous conversations with those affected and turned against a bureaucratizing and unsympathetic approach by church leaders. Of course, an institution must set itself rules, but the personal attitude is decisive.

The journalist and author Kerstin Claus, who as a teenager in Bavaria had been coerced by a pastor into sexual "quid pro quos" for his sympathy, reported on a lack of sensitivity. When she was able to speak about it years later, "the church wanted to silence me," she says today. At the same time, she explained why victims often find it difficult to talk about what they have suffered: First of all, they quite banally lack the appropriate words for their experiences.

In addition, there is a "secret construct" emanating from the perpetrator – "by actively keeping quiet, I remain chained to my perpetrator," said Claus. Years later, there is the added worry "whether my present family can stand it". In light of this, he said, it is "simply reprehensible" for institutions to protect perpetrators instead of believing victims.

Anselm Grun: 95 percent of perpetrators lie

Benedictine priest and book author Anselm Grun, who says he has had many conversations with victims but also with perpetrators, pointed to a special aspect in the church context: As a pastor, he said, he wants to trust his interlocutor. At the same time, he said, 95 percent of perpetrators are known to lie when asked about their actions. So it is necessary to pay attention to noticeable symptoms and not only to believe the words. Perpetrators in the church are always about abuse of power and spiritual abuse, according to Grun.

This was also confirmed by the former President of the Rhineland and Chairman of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), Nikolaus Schneider. He admitted that in 2010, like many others, he had underestimated the extent of the problem in the Protestant church ("I was not the hero"). Many people secretly thought that the Catholics had the "main problem". Changing mentalities is a long process; moreover, "our strengths are also our weaknesses," Schneider said, referring to the Rhenish church's bottom-up structure. Turning to the victims, he added: "You have to keep nagging, otherwise it won't go forward."

By Norbert Zonker

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