It is a tragic case: A priest who until recently was very respected, likeable and theologically highly educated, expresses himself in a way about dealing with sexual abuse that makes one shake one's head. Theologians classify the case.
The 79-year-old priest Ulrich Zurkuhlen caused a scandal with his sermon on the first Sunday of July in the Heilig-Geist-Gemeinde (Holy Spirit Parish) in Munster, Germany. He promoted being able to forgive one another, and explicitly referred this to priests who sexually abused minors as well. Numerous service-goers then left the church in protest.
"It was the first time in my 54 years as a priest that I was shouted down by a group of protesters during a sermon," Zurkuhlen wrote afterwards on his homepage. And points to the biblical stories in which Jesus forgives the adulteress and the prodigal son is taken back by his father.
"I would have liked to justify why I think that forgiveness is one of the basic duties of Christians and that there is also no other way to peace."
Theologians classify the case
Must abuse victims forgive perpetrators? This fundamental question was in the room after Sunday's sermon. Theologians find clear words about it. The parish's senior pastor, Stefan Rau, told the Catholic News Agency (KNA) that forgiveness is one of the most important categories of the Christian faith.
However, he said, the controversy in the congregation had been ignited by the question of who had a right to forgive and who had a duty to forgive. "At this very point, unlike Father Zurkuhlen, I am of the opinion that one can never demand forgiveness from a victim."No one has a right to forgiveness or can demand it from God.
The Jesuit Klaus Mertes, who in 2010 as principal started the uncovering of the abuse affair in the Catholic Church in Germany, expressed himself in an article for the internet portal katholisch.de similar. For him it is quite clear: "There is no 11. Commandment: you (victim) shall forgive (your tormentor) ". A victim should not want to see his perpetrator for the rest of his life. "Perhaps this very thing is even an aspect of 'forgiving,' insofar as 'forgiving' is 'giving away,' along the lines of 'I leave him/her to God's judgment,'" Mertes added.
"Victims are completely free to grant forgiveness"
Florian Kleeberg, a Catholic theologian from Munster, who wrote his doctoral thesis on forgiveness and redemption, also clarifies: "Victims are completely free to grant forgiveness. In the act of forgiveness, the balance of power turns around, the victim holds the key. Reconciliation can only be asked for, it cannot be forced. Only the victim can excuse the perpetrator and thus free him from the burden of his guilt."
Are abuse victims even able to forgive their abuser? While forgiveness can serve the victim's healing process, Kleeberg says. But "there are also crimes that can affect a person's identity to such an extent that they can no longer be healed. When the hurt is too great, the ability to forgive is extinguished. Even if one wanted to, one could not."
Zurkuhlen stressed on his homepage that he had said in the sermon that he thought "it was about time that our church hierarchs forgave the perpetrators of abuse at some point after all". Kleeberg objects that Zurkuhlen completely fails to understand who has the right to forgive. The perpetrators did not commit an offense against the church hierarchy, but against children and young people.
Bishop Genn puts his foot down
Munster's Bishop Felix Genn has retired Zurkuhlen from the ministry. As of now, he is not allowed to publicly worship, preach or hear confessions. He is "catchless", says Genn. "That a priest, with all that we now know about sexual abuse, especially by clergy, about perpetrator strategies and the suffering of victims, goes and makes such statements is inconceivable."
The bishop emphasized that while the topic of forgiveness can be addressed in a sermon. "What is crucial, however, is how you do it."