Great founder or “questionable figure”?

Great founder or 'questionable figure'?

A historian's dispute has erupted over the life and work of Schoenstatt founder Father Joseph Kentenich. Has the popular clergyman been guilty of abuse? A commission should provide clarity.

The accusations against Father Joseph Kentenich (1885-1968) weigh heavily: abuse of power, systematic manipulation, sexual assault. Of all people, the founder of the international Catholic Schoenstatt movement, a model of faith for many thousands of people worldwide, is said to have committed such acts. At least that's what church historian Alexandra von Teuffenbach, who works in Rome, writes. In a recent article in the "Tagespost," she cites decades-old documents from the Vatican archives.

Stocks from the time of Pope Pius XII's pontificate. (1939-1958) were released in March and have since been available for examination for research purposes. What von Teuffenbach has found throws – according to her interpretation – a new light on the life and work of Kentenich. "Various well-kept secrets" could now be revealed, says expert. According to the study of the files, the popular clergyman, whom the German Bishops' Conference also honored on the occasion of his 50th birthday, appears to have been a "very good man". On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his death, the Vatican praised him as a "great founding figure", but rather as a "questionable figure".

Kentenich's exile in the United States

Until now, the version of his vita – which has been publicly accepted – read as if a Vatican investigation in the early 1950s had been mainly concerned with theological ies. Finally, some spiritual elements of the Schoenstatt movement, founded in 1914, aroused the suspicion of the official church early on.

These "special ideas" prompted the Holy Office, as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was then known, to conduct a papal visitation in 1951. The theologian in charge, Sebastian Tromp, a Dutch Jesuit, made a drastic decree: Kentenich, it is also known, was separated from his work and went into exile in the United States.

"Found grievances clearly presented"

But what exactly prompted the Vatican to banish him, whom Pope Paul VI. only lifted in 1965? "The real reasons for Kentenich's exile," writes von Teuffenbach, have not been made known in the past 70 years. But now, on the basis of the declassified documents, it is possible to "clarify the factual situation". The researcher concludes that Visitator Tromp "basically had no serious theological reservations" about the Schoenstatt Movement. "Very clearly", on the other hand, he had presented other "abuses found".

These have to do above all with the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary. Von Teuffenbach describes them as "helpless adult women" who were degraded to children by "Father" Kentenich. He had controlled every detail of her life, put her under psychological prere and forced her to confess to him himself. The historian notes from the files that there had also been sexual misconduct. One of the women had tried to defend herself against it. Nevertheless, the events remained a "family secret of the Sisters of Mary".

Discussion about abuse

Tromp, according to the statements, tried to free the sisters from the "morbid relationship with the founder" – without destroying his reputation. Thus, if one follows von Teuffenbach, Kentenich's exile must really be viewed against the background of a history of abuse. She attributes the Holy Office's reasoning to the contrary to the fact that none of those involved should be exposed.

The Schoenstatt Movement firmly rejects this account. The General Presidium has ied two statements in the past few days. The accusations brought forward had long been known and invalidated, it says.

On the occasion of the beatification procedure for Kentenich, which was initiated in 1975, a new examination took place. "Had doubts about the moral integrity of Schoenstatt's founder continued to exist, the exile would not have ended and the Vatican would not have granted a nihil obstat (declaration of no objection) to open the beatification process," the argument goes.

"Vague statements and brash assertions."

The community accuses von Teuffenbach of having completely adopted the view of the Visitator and of having interpreted all other documents – as well as exculpatory material – from this perspective. "Vague statements, coupled with the brash assertion of sexual abuse, do not testify to a factually appropriate examination of the files," criticized the General Presidium. The historian plays "on the keyboard of the current abuse debate" – without knowing and conveying the whole history of Kentenich.

Von Teuffenbach counters that it cannot remain silent as long as a cult is practiced around a person "whose life is concealed in essential aspects". This is how the simple believer is deceived. "If there had been a corresponding publication, the publications on my part would not have been necessary," she asserts. But since that had not happened, "I felt impelled to add some elements to the biography of the founder, whose cult the Schoenstatt Work operates".

Demand for clarification of the documents

The argument of "Nihil obstat" does not convince the author. According to her, it was done "solely on the basis of the files presented by the Schoenstatt Work" and without a comprehensive study. She calls on the community to publish all documents necessary for clarification "in the next few days" on the Internet. This will make the processing easier for all concerned.

Whoever is right in the dispute, one thing is certain: Should the accusations against Kentenich prove to be only rudimentarily justified, the beatification proceedings will be over and done with. Anything else would be incompatible with the "zero tolerance policy" postulated by Pope Francis in matters of abuse.

A commission of historians is to provide clarity. This was announced by Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier. A statement from the diocese said that "after the further opening of the Vatican archives, documents can be viewed that until now were not accessible for the diocesan investigation in the beatification process for the founder of the Schoenstatt Movement".

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