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Stories that Count

CCP thanks Fr. Gottfried Ugolini for sharing this report on the 3rd public hearing regarding “Churches and their responsibility to process child sexual abuse” which took place on 27 June 2018 in Berlin organized by the Independent Commission for the processing of child sexual abuse.

To listen to the victims and survivors of abuse in Catholic and Protestant church communities, and to let their stories affect us is the first step in the healing process. In her opening speech, the President of the Commission, Dr. Sabine Andresen, stressed the urgent need for each of us to learn from the victims and to integrate what they tell us in developing reparation and prevention programs. To listen well requires courage and generosity. The church communities should guarantee a central role to the victims because they are the first-hand experts. Listening comes first; later others will have a chance to express their own impressions and reactions to what they have heard.

As the abuse happened in the church communities which are integral to the societies in which they exist, the process of reconciliation and reparation must be public. Because they are hierarchical power structures, the church communities are, as a general rule, reluctant to take responsibility for the evil that has been done and to allow a critical view from both inside and outside of the organizations. The victims expect more profound efforts from both church communities in how they deal with them and how they act to prevent future abuse. Because of their negative experiences, many of the survivors of  clerical abuse have formed associations and networks to express their their understanding of the issues and to press for the necessary changes in the lives of the church communities. The Commission has helped to form an independent board of victims for Germany.

The Federal Minister for Family, Dr. Franziska Giffey, stressed the necessity to discuss the issue of abuse in public. Nobody should absolve themselves from responsibility. Not only religious entities, but also schools, sports associations and families should address the problem of child sexual abuse because it takes place in relationships constituted by power and trust.  Every organization in society has to deal with the abuse wherever it is found and ask why those in power did not act against it.

In his introductory lecture, Prof. Keupp, one of the experts in addressing the problem of child sexual abuse in ecclesiastical institutions, noted the insufficient willingness on part of church communities, both Catholic and Protestant, to take responsibility for the abuses committed by the clergy and by the  staff. The reasons are power, institutional narcissism and the complexity of institutional silence. The order of silence and the commitment to it has been broken since 2010 through the growing sensibility and solidarity of society at large toward victims, which has largely been promoted by the media. According to Keupp there is a need to develop guidelines for crisis management together with an external advisory board to assure that the victims and the systemic implications of the abuse are taken more seriously. Moreover, he argued for the development of an external organization to assess Church institutions. The Church must take proactive steps in order to be prepared to do justice to the victims, to the survivors, and in order to make it perfectly clear that it is on the side of the survivors and against the culture that has tacitly supported abuse. Finally, Keupp advocated a revision of how we preserve confidentiality when giving pastoral care and  whether and how the seal of confession should be applied when there are good reasons to believe that reporting information to the proper authorities could protect children from harm.

The goal of this hearing was to allow victims and survivors to speak about their experiences regarding their abuse, the revelation of it, the reactions of the ecclesiastical leaders and of the contact persons and their impression of the process of healing, reparation, and amendment of church culture. Most of the victims present criticized the obstacles and resistance they encountered in dealing with their disclosure of abuse and how they were treated by the representatives of the diocese. They criticise the officials for not responding to their needs. They often feel that they are beating their heads in vain against a wall built out of canonical norms and defensive attitudes. Very often, the meetings with the victims were delegated by the dioceses to canon lawyers with poor capacity for empathy. The victims missed out on an attentive hearing as well as a respectful response from the diocesan personnel. They often felt as they were treated like an invoice: once the bill is paid, the issue disappears. In such situations the trustworthiness of the church community to take care of the person, to assume their responsibility and to respond compassionately and sincerely to the reality of abuse, is lost.

Those who have suffered at the hands of clerics, pastors, and church personnel want a sincere commitment from church authority to to provide a culture of attention for the victims, including psycho-social protection and the possibility to meet with them face to face. This is the best we can do to minimize the risk of re-traumatization and the development of a cumulative trauma. Victims should not be seen only as witnesses who provide the proof of evildoing by members of the Church. They have to be seen as partners who are important collaborators in clearing and processing of abuse cases. Therefore they should not be forced to sign an agreement to keep silent.

Diocesan offices should work to train their staff in standardized procedures.  Catholic and Protestant  organizations should create a joint Institute to help set standards for the qualification of the contact persons, continuous evaluations and follow ups. A board of survivors could share their expertise and contribute to the supervision of the Institute.

The prevention program of the church communities are not trustworthy without a commitment to take responsibility for the evil done by clergy, religious and ecclesiastical coworkers as well as allowing an external team of experts to assess how well the programs are working.

The parishes and institutions where abuse happened need short-term crisis management as well as long-term professional support to analyze and clarify the systemic culture of silence which made abuse possible and kept it covered up for decades. This is basic for a serious and effective prevention program. The parishes where the abuse took place and those where the perpetrator served before or after abusing children also need professional support and independent supervision for the people and for the pastoral staff. There have been people who knew what happened but they could not dare to speak about it. Others didn’t realize what happened while they were benefitting from the pastoral work of the narcissistic priest. When the abuse is revealed, the different views of the abuser’s character emerge which can deeply divide the community.  Even those who were not directly abused suffer from profound feelings mistrust and insecurity, of loss and sadness and suffer from a blow to their own feeling of self-worth.

In the affected parishes, no proper reporting was done. Priests who abused children were transferred to other parishes without informing the parishes about the true circumstances of the assignment. Many were forbidden to celebrate mass in public continued to do so. Victims can’t understand or accept that this happened, and they criticize the diocese for not meeting their full responsibility to oversee the subsequent behavior of perpetrators. The diocese must inform the new parish and the pastor assigned to the former parish. This is especially important because most of the perpetrators continue to abuse children, putting others at risk for abuse.

Many victims still have the impression that the church communities care more about the perpetrator and the bureaucracy than the victims of the crimes. They should not shield perpetrators from prosecution. On the other hand, in contrasting the strict moral code of the churches to the behavior of the perpetrators there can be ambivalence.

The leadership of the churches  should rethink the traditions concerning confidentiality and the requirement to remain silent about everything heard in confession. Particular attention should be given to the secrecy of the pastoral counselling and to the seal of confession when information about child sexual abuse is revealed. The person who knows about the abuse should be encouraged to speak to civil and church authorities in order to use the remedies provided by civil and canon law to protect those who have been or may yet be harmed by the perpetrator.

Where no systemic processing is done, no prevention and no protection can be guaranteed. If the church communities resist making serious efforts to take responsibility and to guarantee transparent procedures, according the victims, the civil authorities should implement such independent and professional assessment with qualified staff and supervision by a board of survivors. An ethical commission should supervise the processing of the child sexual abuses inside and outside the church structures.

Another issue regards the statute of limitations, that some argue should be abolished, because the abuse is like a murder, life is destroyed and the victims suffer their whole life long.

The whole issue of child sexual abuse in the church raises theological, spiritual and pastoral questions, too. What kind of theology or spirituality tends to support abuse or can be perverted to justify it? How do perpetrators get rid of feelings of guilt and the suppress the perception that abuse is a grave sin and a despicable crime? How is confession used to cover up abuse? How and why do church communities bypass the issue of sexual abuse by clergy, avoiding or refusing to acknowledge some responsibility for what happened? Do the church communities ask themselves where does the lack of mercy and empathy of the ecclesial staff come from?

The hearing was closed with the reactions of both leaders of the Catholic and Protestant church communities. They recognized the wounds and sufferings of the victims and promised to continue to reflect and to promote better conditions in dealing with victims, parishes and perpetrators, to look for a standardization of procedures and for a professional development of the church personnel.


– Gottfried Ugolini