“I am currently experiencing it in a very concrete way”

Father Klaus Mertes © Julian Stratenschulte

Ten years ago, Father Mertes made public the first cases of abuse in the German Catholic Church. A lot has happened since then in the reappraisal process. But the Jesuit does not see abuse in the church banished until today.

Interviewer: Three former students told you ten years ago that they had been sexually abused. Did the information come out of the blue for you or did you have an inkling before 2010 that there might have been abuse at your school, Canisius College in Berlin?

Father Klaus Mertes (Former Director of Canisius College): I had a hunch due to a rumor structure that lasted for more than two decades. I had also received two individual reports the year before, both under the seal of secrecy. I had forwarded the accused perpetrator upwards. But the victims asked for absolute discretion. The new thing for me was that I had been explicitly mandated by the three men who had come to me to act on their narratives.

Interviewer: The disclosure was made ten years ago, but the deeds are much further back in the past. Why has it taken so long to realize that abuse has taken place in church institutions?

Mertes: First of all, the victims themselves take a long time to say that they have been abused. That is the difference to rape, where the perpetrator is immediately clear to the victim as the perpetrator. Matthias Katsch (founder of the affected person initiative "Eckiger Tisch", Anm. d. Red.), who was also with me, has now described in a book how the process went for him. Only 20, 30 years later did he even realize what had happened to him.

The second reason why it takes so long is that it's information that the institution doesn't like to hear, precisely because it hurts, damages self-image and leads to complex loyalty problems. Because there are also questions of loyalty that arise in terms of due process to the accused.

Interviewer: Topic "appropriate": right now the discussion is about the amount of compensation to be paid to victims of abuse. Some victims want it to hurt the church or religious orders. How much would it hurt the Jesuits, then, if they had, say, 300.000 euros per compensation case should be paid?

Mertes: If we were to close all our schools and colleges and sell the real estate, we would not be able to raise the sums that are being demanded here. I have always understood and accepted this desire to hurt as well. But the hurting is not only about the money, but also about investing the time, admitting the message and getting ready for a change of one's own system.

It is, after all, a great desire of the victims that the system change so that something like this does not happen again. These are also painful processes. What bothers me about the question of compensation is the fixation on money. Money is one aspect of compensation, but money alone does not lead anywhere and does not bring peace.

Interviewer: Would abuse, as you made it public, still be possible in the church in 2020 in this way?

Mertes: Yes, I am currently experiencing it very concretely.

Interviewer: Do you want to talk about it?

Mertes: No. This brings us back to the huge problem that we are dealing with highly complex matters in which the perpetrators then deny the allegations and file lawsuits against the victim's statements. The courts would then reject the victim's claim based on the presumption of innocence. We have these processes going on at the moment and we still have the spiritual abuse systems, in which serious attacks on the freedom and autonomy of the members are taking place. Partly sometimes in front of the eyes of the public, also the church, including the hierarchy.

Interviewer: Now lay people and bishops are trying in a dialogue process to reform the Catholic Church in Germany, also to do a little something about the hierarchy. The Synodal Way is a result, among other things, of the abuse cases. What would you like to see from the synodical path?

Mertes: I would like the Synodal Way to take a courageous step forward in order to make representations to Rome on ies that are relevant to the whole Church and to say: Something has to change here for the whole Church and not just in Germany.

The interview was conducted by Tobias Fricke.

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