Symbol image abuse in the Catholic Church © Harald Oppitz (KNA)
It is to be presented at the autumn plenary assembly in Fulda on Tuesday – but the study by the German bishops on abuse of minors has already caused a stir in the run-up to the event. The shock sits deep.
The task was clearly formulated: The study on coming to terms with sexual violence in the Catholic Church was to provide "clarity and transparency about this dark side in our church". This is how the abuse commissioner of the German Bishops' Conference, Bishop Stephan Ackermann, explained the start of the project – "for the sake of the victims, but also so that we can see the misconduct ourselves and do everything we can to ensure that it does not happen again.".
After a good four years, the investigation commissioned by the Bishops' Conference has now been completed. It comprises around 360 pages. When the first results became known, the shock was great: For the investigation period from 1946 to 2014, the interdisciplinary team of researchers around the Mannheim psychiatrist Harald Drebing found 3.677 victims of sexual assault and around 1.670 priests, deacons and religious accused – that's 4.4 percent of all clergy from about 70 years ago.
Study to be presented by DBK
On Tuesday, the researchers will present the entire investigation at the autumn plenary meeting of the German Bishops' Conference in Fulda. In the process, they also want to take a look at special features of the Catholic Church that could encourage abuse.
For their investigation, the scientists have linked different methods, a probably unique approach, as Drebing explained.
The study also had to comply with data protection laws – one of the reasons why a first attempt with criminologist Christian Pfeiffer failed. Clergy on record for abuse are referred to as accused in the study; their names and those of their respective dioceses are anonymized. In addition, the researchers did not evaluate the files themselves, but used the data that the dioceses passed on to them.
Qualitative interviews a focus of the study
In addition to the quantitative investigation, qualitative interviews form a focal point of the study: they were conducted with victims who came forward as well as with accused persons whom the dioceses referred to them. To filter out possible specifics about abuse in the Catholic Church, church cases were compared with other cases. The researchers also analyzed results from other studies, for example from the USA and Australia. Nevertheless, according to the researchers, the sources could only represent a part of the crimes committed.
The research team had already presented initial indications of a "perpetrator profile" in 2016, and these now appear to be confirmed: As in existing studies from individual dioceses in Germany, but also from other countries, the accused were primarily parish priests and other priests. Many were found to be emotionally or sexually immature, some to have a personality disorder, and a rather small number were found to have characteristics of pedophilia.
At 13.1 percent, the number of alcohol abusers among accused clergy is striking. Among those affected, the percentage of underage male altar boys is particularly high at 29.8 percent. Many acts happened in parsonages or other church buildings.
Celibacy not a risk factor
Celibacy – the obligation for priests to remain celibate – is not in itself a risk factor for sexual abuse, study says. But it requires an "intense confrontation with one's own emotionality, eroticism and sexuality". This, he said, is currently insufficient. The Catholic Church's treatment of homosexuality is also significant, the study continues.
Homosexuality is also not a risk factor for sexual abuse, he said. The researchers also advise the church to urgently reconsider its fundamentally negative stance on the ordination of homosexual men.
The researchers' suggestion that sexual abuse of minors by clerics is not "an ie closed in the past and now overcome" is noteworthy. However, the study also shows that after a peak in the 1990s, the number of reported cases of abuse had fallen drastically by 2017.