Once again it was Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller who caused outrage in a special way in January 22. In an interview in an Italian daily newspaper, he commented on the results of the abuse study in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising that had been presented the day before. A particularly piquant detail of this study: the former Archbishop of Munich Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI. according to the findings of the experts, misconduct in dealing with abusers can be proven. Specifically, attention is focused on the case of a priest from the diocese of Essen, who had been convicted of child sexual abuse, but who, after serving a prison sentence and undergoing therapy, was assigned to the archdiocese of Munich. From the activities there in a community, acts of abuse became known. Benedict XVI had denied having known about this case in a first Munich report in 2010. However, the documents that have now been researched show that the case was discussed at least once in the presence of the archbishop at the time. In his interview, Cardinal Müller defended Ratzinger and denied that he had intentionally done anything wrong. Rather, according to Müller, for many decades there was great uncertainty among the bishops in dealing with cases of abuse. In church and society it was assumed that therapeutic treatment of the perpetrators would bring about a change in their behavior. In addition, one has to give Ratzinger credit for reacting to the advances in knowledge in dealing with child abuse and, as pope, later making important changes to the world church to improve the prevention and punishment of the perpetrators.
With this, Müller takes up a line of argument that Ratzinger himself put forward. In 2001, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then led by Ratzinger, summed it up:
The period from 1965 to 1983 (the year in which the new Code of Canon Law for the Latin Church was published) was marked by various currents within Canon Studies regarding the objectives of canon law and the need for a decentralized treatment of cases, with emphasis the authority and judgment of local bishops. A “pastoral approach” was preferred to inappropriate behavior; by some, canonical processes were viewed as anachronistic. A “therapeutic model” has often prevailed in dealing with inappropriate clerical behavior. The bishop was expected to „heal“ rather than „punish.“ An overly optimistic view of the success of psychological therapies determined many personnel decisions in the dioceses and religious communities, sometimes without adequate consideration of the possibility of a relapse.”
In an article on the abuse scandal, Benedict XVI reiterated from his retirement in 2019 again this argument. It is likely that Ratzinger’s own experiences as archbishop in the years 1977-1982 also entered into this perspective. Ratzinger would have let the fatal leniency prevail in the Munich case now under discussion, which he later judged to be harmful. There can be no doubt that the social discussion and also the psychological findings at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s differed significantly from today’s assessment of abuse. It may be recalled that until the 1980s there were public discussions about the abolition of the criminal prohibition against pedophilia. In 1980, DER SPIEGEL reported critically on the many social movements aimed at removing the taboo on pedophilia and, from today’s perspective, gives an astounding insight into the discussion in psychological specialist circles. About sexual acts with children that are clearly labeled as abusive behavior today, it says:
On the other hand, not only among the propagandists of pedophilia, but also among more conservative children connoisseurs, the opinion is held that — if violence was not involved — the so-called secondary consequences for an affected child are often more harmful than the act itself breathless excitement on the part of parents about a process which the child had not considered forbidden, the criminal proceedings with their rehashing of details and interrogations, the official blacking out of the tenderheart and the feelings of guilt that arose — than that, as numerous child psychologists believe, often only worries in retrospect the feared child fright.
Today it is made absolutely clear in the professional world that no form of abusive behavior can be justified or harmless. The intensive examination of victims of sexual violence has meanwhile refuted this assumption.
Ratzinger or Müller represent a kind of “infection thesis” here, according to which the church fell into the trap of “secularization” in a certain historical phase due to an overly friendly adaptation of social patterns of interpretation. Is this thesis good for explaining the abuse? This should clearly be denied. On the one hand, the abuse caused by the available studies was a problem in all periods examined, i.e. not a specific problem from the 1960s to the 1990s. It can be assumed that even today, with the now significantly advanced scientific knowledge, the social debate and the tightened security measures through preventive and intervention measures, as well as tightening in secular and church criminal law, abuse takes place in the ranks of the church. Even if society and science dealt with abuse as an overall phenomenon in a significantly different way at the time, the Church should always have led a harsh abuse regime from its own sources, which would also have included the consistent punishment and dismissal of perpetrators.
However, the „Ratzinger case“ clearly shows how complex it is to come to terms with the abuse scandals in the ranks of the Catholic Church and, above all, to respond appropriately. At times, the public gets the impression that „abuse“ is a specifically Catholic issue. It is to be welcomed that the processing has now entered a second phase. The so-called „MHG“ study from 2018, which was commissioned by the German Bishops‘ Conference, documented the known and recorded cases of abuse based on the personnel files of all German dioceses and revealed alarmingly high numbers. In addition, the suffering of the victims and the failure of church leaders and those responsible in the face of the scandal are increasingly being documented. The expert opinions now commissioned by the dioceses, such as the recently published Munich report, analyze the legal dimension and investigate the individual cases. Those responsible can now be identified and named, even if the „punishment“ is seen as inadequate in many places. Further reports will follow, which will now also focus more on historical and medical aspects.
The review has brought into focus the specific „Catholic“ factors that have contributed to the shameful level of abuse under the umbrella of the Church. The tight ecclesiastical hierarchies and internal church protective mechanisms against perpetrators are identified (e.g. because one shied away from the public scandal or was on friendly terms with the perpetrators). In addition, the strict Catholic moral teaching, in particular the priestly way of life and the incrimination of homosexuality, is attributed a reinforcing effect. The absence of women in the management levels can also be seen as a major shortcoming. The social influences described in the „Ratzinger case“ of the fundamentally wrong assessment from today’s perspective with regard to the severity, criminal liability and therapeutic processing of acts of abuse is only one of many factors. From the point of view of the critics inside and outside the church, it is not enough to just look at this area and improve the rules of procedure, prevention and intervention, care and compensation for those affected. It becomes clear that a fundamental adjustment of management structures (always rejected by Ratzinger, by the way) and a change in the Church’s teaching proclamation are among the Church’s tasks in the course of the abuse. In this sense, the „Synodal Way“ initiated by the Bishops‘ Conference has set itself the goal of changing the „Catholic“ characteristics identified as critical. However, the outcome is still uncertain.
But is child abuse a specifically “Catholic” problem? In this general form, the question can of course be combined, as the experts from the prevention centers assume that, from a social point of view, abuse is primarily a family phenomenon. In 2020, the Federal Statistical Office (Germany) registered around 195,000 proceedings initiated at youth welfare offices and counseling centers for endangering the welfare of children in the family, of which such a fact was established in 30,000 cases. Of these, over 17,000 cases related to physical and psychological violence, 1,300 explicitly to sexual violence. For the period from 1946 to 2014, the MHG study noted the number of around 3800 identified victims for the various abuse offenses reported. The numbers are difficult to compare. However, it becomes clear that statistically the proportion of cases of abuse in the Catholic Church accounts for only a small part of the total cases of abuse. Given the suffering of those affected, such statistical reasoning is not appropriate. However, it makes it clear that the systematic investigation and analysis of acts of abuse, combined with the corresponding consequences. also useful for other areas of society. In the evangelical church, for example, a study comparable to the MHG study is still pending. Christine Bergmann, the federal government’s independent commissioner for dealing with child sexual abuse, made it clear in 2018 that around 2/3 of the reports of abuse in the church sector received at her central contact point related to the Catholic church and 1/3 to the Protestant church. The discussions and research that have been initiated in the area of sports associations also make the necessary further work particularly clear. Unfortunately, it has not yet been possible in Germany to agree on a joint review of all institutional sponsors.
Australia has taken such a path. Here, a state-appointed commission created an abuse report that included all relevant institutions. Around 4000 institutions were included. Again, the numbers are not easy to read. The Commission found that over 41% of those affected had experienced abuse in out-of-home care facilities. This means, for example, children’s and youth homes, but apparently also a number of facilities where the care of the children and young people entrusted to them was at least partly carried out at home. Abuse in the context of school was recorded with a percentage of 31.8%. “Religious activities” then follow in third place with 14.5%. I’m careful with the numbers. It is not clear to me to what extent there has been an overlap. For example, are church youth homes included under “religion” or under “care facilities”? How can individual cases be classified into categories? However, it is striking that under the category „religious activities“ over 60% of the cases were registered within the framework of the Catholic Church. Why is this? While the Catholic Church is the largest Christian denomination in Australia, the disproportionate incidence of abuse in this sector raises significant questions. Even if other factors should have played a role, such as the fact that the social discussion about abuse in Australia also focused primarily on the Catholic Church, so that sensitivity was particularly high here: one is allowed, at least after such initial ones Studies indicate that the Catholic Church has a particular problem with the issue of child abuse. This would still have to be verified for Germany and Europe.
Irrespective of all the statistics, the scientific evaluation that has been initiated must not lead to the search for excuses for acts of abuse. Even if connections appear more understandable or explicable from a historical and structural perspective, the personal responsibility of the abusers and those responsible, and in part also of the perpetrators‘ environment, remains. Above all, the discussion about the „Ratzinger case“ has shown how easily a hoped-for abuse investigation can quickly lead to secondary areas of content. In everything, honesty and consistency remain decisive in the subsequent processing, which is always the processing, but never the compensation of a great injustice, of personal damage and permanent mental and physical suffering. The Munich study is just one step on a long road.