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An Apology — and a Pledge — on Sex Abuse From Germany’s Bishops

Posted September 25, 2018 7:17 p.m. EDT

BERLIN — The head of the German Bishops’ Conference apologized Tuesday for the “pain and suffering” caused by the Catholic Church’s decadeslong failure to take abuse of children at the hands of clergy members seriously enough, and pledged to pursue justice.

The apology came on the heels of a new report that found more than 3,600 children in German had been victimized by clergy members.

“This is not about saving an institution,” the conference leader, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, said at a news conference where the findings of the study were presented. “Sexual abuse is a crime and those who commit it must be punished.”

Hours earlier, Pope Francis acknowledged that anger over the sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic clergy members was driving many people, especially the young, away from an institution they feel no longer speaks to, understands or can protect them.

“They are outraged by sexual and economic scandals that do not meet with clear condemnation, by our unpreparedness to really appreciate the lives and sensibilities of the young, and simply by the passive role we assign them,” Francis told Catholic, Lutheran and Orthodox youths in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, where he was wrapping up a four-day pilgrimage to the Baltics, The Associated Press reported.

Like Marx, the pope said the church wanted to respond to complaints transparently and honestly. But years after the first reports of abuse emerged in the United States and Australia in the early 2000s, and a decade after the church in Germany began grappling with accounts of widespread abuse, many victims still feel frustrated, alienated and ignored.

Germany is a largely secular country, and less than a third of its 82 million inhabitants belong to the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, the church remains a powerful institution, embedded in the country’s culture and social structures. It also employs more than a million people in the hospitals, day care centers and nursing homes that it runs.

Since 2010, the Bishops’ Conference has run a hotline for abuse and had a bishop serving as its own commissioner on the issue.

But the study, which was leaked to several media organizations last week, found that at least 1,670 clergy members and deacons had abused 3,677 children — more than half of them boys — from 1946 to 2014. That abuse continued even after the church took initial steps to try to prevent it.

The researchers tried to identify a broader explanation for how the church became an environment in which sexual abuse could flourish.

Celibacy itself, they said, may not be a factor for sexual abuse, but a commitment to such a life “requires an extensive examination of one’s own emotions, eroticism and sexuality.”

The researchers also pointed at the church’s stance toward homosexuality. Homosexuality, they said, is also not a risk factor for abuse, but “there is an urgent need to reconsider the fundamentally negative attitude of the Catholic Church toward the ordination of homosexual men.” The researchers urged the church to follow the findings of “modern sexual medicine” and promote an “open, tolerance-promoting atmosphere.”

The report also singled out the “hierarchical-authoritarian system” of the church, saying it “can lead the priest to adopt an attitude of dominating nonordained individuals in interactions because he holds a superior position by virtue of his ministry and ordination.”

Victims’ groups and critics say the study is incomplete, because researchers had access only to records provided by the church, as well as reports submitted anonymously by victims over the internet.

Harald Dressing, a professor at the Mannheim Institute of Psychology, who coordinated the study, said that researchers had found indications that some church records had been “manipulated or destroyed,” leading them to believe that the actual number of victims may be much greater than what they could document.

“This report gives numbers and quotas that are only the tip of the iceberg,” Dressing said, “but from our study, we have been able to analyze this iceberg. And as we see it, the discussion about the structures that made it easy to abuse are more important than the numbers themselves.”

Marx, the cardinal, who expressed shame for the church and for himself, said that the study had been presented to the bishops of Germany’s 27 dioceses Tuesday and that a course of action would be discussed in the coming days at an annual meeting of the conference.

“All this must not remain without consequences,” he said. “Those affected are entitled to justice.”

The German chapter of the group We Are Church demanded that the Catholic Church go beyond just focusing on known victims and take steps to prevent new cases of abuse. The group called for “a fundamental cultural change within the Catholic Church, a critical analysis of the power structures and, above all, an end to clericalism that has always included a spiritual abuse of power.”

Johannes-Wilhelm Rörig, a German independent commissioner whose office looks into the sexual abuse of children, urged the church to build on the results of the study. He said it offered an opportunity to cooperate with his office and allow the government to play a role in a more in-depth look into abuse.

“This marks a break, a turning point at which the government and the church must ensure an independent investigation,” Rörig said. “Only this way can it be ensured that the focus remains on the victims, so that their suffering at last is the focus of the process of coming to terms with the past.”