This is what it looks like, the document of a conspiracy: 24 pages, with appendix, in Latin, published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican. A “norma interna,” or confidential set of guidelines for all bishops, who were required to keep it a secret for all eternity, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
The guidelines, issued in the year of our Lord 1962, address a sensitive subject: sex in the confessional. The Vatican doesn’t put it quite that directly, preferring to use more guarded terminology to describe what happens when a priest leads a member of his flock astray before, during or after the confession — in other words, when he provokes a penitent “toward impure and obscene matters” through “words or signs or nods of the head (or) by touch.”
According to the instructions from Rome, the bishops were to deal very firmly with each individual case — so firmly, in fact, that everything would remain within the confines of the Holy Church. After all, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — formerly known as the Inquisition — has centuries of experience in conducting internal investigations. The Vatican has always filled all the positions in such investigations — prosecutors, defendants, judges — from within its own ranks, while the investigation files have been kept in the secret archives of the Roman Curia.
Claim to Moral Authority
On the surface, the Vatican’s objective is to protect the sacrament of the confession. In reality, however, it is trying to uphold the Catholic Church’s claim to being a superior moral authority.
Nothing can be allowed to besmirch this authority: not the sexual abuse of children and adolescents, committed by thousands of Catholic priests worldwide; not the secret relationships between pastor and their housekeepers; not the covering-up of priests’ children; and not the love affairs between gay clerics. They are all cases of a double standard that arose because it is difficult for people — even priests — to subordinate their human desires to a papal encyclical.
This code of silence has been upheld for decades, in some cases informally and in some cases by virtue of Vatican directives like the 1962 guideline.
But now the wall of silence is coming down here in Germany. It started when Berlin’s Canisius College, an elite Jesuit high school, recently disclosed the sordid past of a number of members of the order, who had abused students at the school in the 1970s and 1980s. After that, new victims began coming forward on a daily basis. By last Friday, at least 40 of them had accused three Jesuit priests of molesting children and adolescents, first in Berlin and later at the St. Ansgar School in Hamburg, the St. Blasien College in the Black Forest and in several parishes in the northern German state of Lower Saxony.
Tip of the Iceberg
As shocking as the revelations were, they are merely “the tip of the iceberg,” says the current director of Canisius College, Father Klaus Mertes, who made public the sexual abuse of students.
For decades, German bishops tried to look the other way when their pastors engaged in sexual abuse, as well as to downplay the problem by characterizing it as isolated incidents. Now they are finally revealing their own figures, though hesitantly. According to a SPIEGEL survey of Germany’s 27 dioceses conducted last week, at least 94 priests and members of the laity in Germany are suspected or have been suspected of abusing countless children and adolescents since 1995. A total of 24 of the 27 dioceses responded to SPIEGEL’s questions.
A group called the Round Table for Care in Children’s Homes recently published an interim report which contains dramatic findings. The report deals with the wrongs committed since the 1950s against children and adolescents living in homes, almost half of which were run by the Catholic Church.
According to the report, more than 150 victims of sexual abuse have come forward with their stories in recent months. One of them is a woman who, as a 15-year-old girl, had to sit in the confessional and watch a priest masturbate. When she tried to get away from him, she was beaten by the nuns who ran the home. There has never been a systematic investigation into how many Catholic schools, homes and rectories were the scenes of abuse, even when there was evidence in the files. The Round Table group plans to present its final report at the end of the year.
Protecting Offenders, Ignoring Victims
A tremor is currently passing through the Catholic Church in Germany. It could be merely the beginning of an earthquake of proportions which have so far only been seen in the American and Irish Church. Tens of thousands of abuse cases were brought to light in both countries. Could Germany be next?
The scandal is just beginning, and yet it has already made a deep impression: on parents, who expect Catholic schools to provide their children with moral guidance; on the victims, who are now confronting their dark past after living with it half their lives; and on the faithful, who now regard their church with dismay. Their shock stems not only from the fact that there are pedophiles in the church, as there are elsewhere in society. It also comes from the fact that the church systematically protected the perpetrators and ignored the victims, and that it repressed and covered up sexual abuse in its own ranks for decades — and in doing so enabled pedophile priests to leave behind a trail of emotional devastation throughout Germany.
To this day, the chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop of Freiburg Robert Zollitsch, has not offered any convincing words of apology or emphatic gestures of redress to the victims of the church’s double standard. After vacillating for days, he finally decided not to grant SPIEGEL an interview. The official Church prefers not to allow the suffering of its victims to become a major issue, because it doesn’t fit into the Church’s hypocritical worldview.
The Bishops’ Conference will not even address the sex scandals until Feb. 22. “The revelations show a dark side of the church that scares me,” says the Jesuit Hans Langendörfer, secretary of the Bishops’ Conference. “We expressly want an investigation.”
Nevertheless, the clerics are still a long way from any sort of true self-criticism or far-reaching analysis, because it would require them to examine the Church’s repressed sexual morality that is dictated from above. It would require an honest discussion about celibacy and its consequences, particularly when it comes to the Church’s recruitment practices. In a church that is having trouble attracting men to the priesthood, particularly as a result of the ban on marriage, the number of good candidates has become so small that too many inappropriate candidates get admitted.
Does this mean that the church will continue to pursue its policy of hemming and hawing, and of avoiding the important questions, as it has already done so often? It will be difficult to carry on like that, now that the Jesuits’ offensive has put the entire clergy under pressure. The order intends to systematically investigate abuse in its own ranks, as painful as that effort will be and even if the growing number of revelations by former students plunge it into what is likely to be the deepest crisis in Jesuit history. Father Stefan Dartmann, the head of the Jesuit order of Germany, says that an “immense tragedy is now becoming apparent.”
His fears are justified, as more and more former students come forward. In addition to the Canisius College and the schools in St. Ansgar and St. Blasien, there have now been revelations of abuse at the Jesuits’ Aloisius College in Bonn’s Bad Godesberg neighborhood, where entire generations of children of politicians and diplomats went to school.
- Part 1: Inside Germany’s Catholic Sexual Abuse Scandal
- Part 2: ‘It Was Difficult for Us to Endure the Priests’ Sexual Advances’
- Part 3: An Attractive Alterantive to Public Schools for Many Parents
- Part 4: ‘One Can’t Say that the Criminal Law Has Any Practical Significance’
- Part 5: A Church Pays Hush Money
- Part 6: Celibacy: A Senselessly Wasted Life or Gift of the Holy Spirit?