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RIGHTS-GERMANY: ‘Catholic Church Protects Paedophile Priests’

Julio Godoy

BERLIN, Feb 27 2010 (IPS) - The Catholic Church has for decades protected paedophile priests and clerics who sexually abused children from judiciary prosecution, according to German theologians, law experts, and internal church documents.

The church hierarchy’s complicity was confirmed recently through thousands of denouncements against numerous priests in Germany. In practically all the cases, the abusers were only transferred from one jurisdiction to another and never legally prosecuted.

Similar cases of sexual abuse of children within Catholic schools and other institutions, with impunity for the abusers, have been documented in such countries as Austria, Australia, France, Italy, the Philippines, Spain, and the United States.

In Germany, the denouncements started last January, when Klaus Mertes, director of the Catholic Canisius high school in Berlin, in an open letter addressed to former students, apologised for the sexual abuse priests had inflicted on them in the 1970s and 1980s.

In the letter, Mertes said that he knew “since years” of the abuse, and called them “systematic and years-long.” He also urged the victims to reveal the precise the nature of the abuse and encouraged them to ‘’break the wall of silence” maintained around the cases.

Much attention has fallen on the Canisius high school, managed by the Jesuit order, and rated as one of the best educational institutions in Germany.

On Feb. 14, Mertes said at a press conference that the number of cases of sexual abuse at Canisius reached “the hundreds” and suggested that the Catholic church pay financial reparations to the victims.

The Berlin-based lawyer Manuela Groll, who legally counsels several of the victims of the Canisius school, confirmed Mertes’ estimations. “I receive new denouncements practically every day,” Groll told IPS. “I am sure the number of victims reaches three digits.”

Since Mertes’ revelations, hundreds of other cases of paedophilia perpetrated by priests have been confirmed in numerous other Catholic schools across Germany. Much of the abuse goes back to the 1960s and 1970s, but some it was committed as late as 2002.

Typical is that of the Ettal abbey school, another renowned Catholic boarding school, situated in Bavaria, some 600 kilometres south of Berlin, near the Austrian border. In 1969, the wards told the abbey administration that a priest was sexually abusing them.

The priest, identified as Father M., was temporarily removed from his position as sports teacher, but was allowed to teach again a couple of years later. Rumours that M. continued to sexually abuse the students were constant, but there was no intervention.

In 1984, after a mother accused M. of abusing her child, he was removed, but only temporarily.

Today, the school director Maurus Krass admits that “it was a mistake to allow M. to teach again. We thought that he had learned his lesson,’’ Krass told IPS.

Several months before his death in 2009, M. had confessed in a declaration to having had sexual relations with students for years.

Similar cases have been confirmed by former students. ”I always found (relations with the priests) quite nauseating, but I was shocked, and could not react. Furthermore, there was this whole system of repression, that made it impossible to get out of this vicious circle,” a former Canisius student, now 48, records.

Another former Canisius student told IPS that priests would invite children to a cellar, and encourage them to masturbate. The priests would caress the boys while they masturbated.

“Among the children, the cellar was known as the masturbation basement,” the Canisius student said.

Several victims of the abuses committed suicide while others have had to undergo psychological therapy for years.

According to German theologians, and Germany’s prosecution officials, the church hierarchy invariably hid the abuse.

The German theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann told IPS that the Catholic Church “from the Vatican down to the priests on the field, have helped to guarantee the abusers absolute impunity. There are two internal documents in which the Catholic church takes care of maintaining the abuse in absolute secrecy,” Ranke-Heinemann said.

The first document, titled “Crimen Sollicitationis” (Latin for “the crime of soliciting”), goes back to 1962, and was written by the Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, at the time prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as the Inquisition.

The second paper, “De delictis gravioribus” (“on more serious crimes”), was written in 2001 by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, today’s Pope Benedict XVI. He was also prefect of the congregation.

“Both documents, which are today in the possession of every Catholic bishop around the globe, emphasise the exclusive jurisdiction of the Vatican on sexual crimes such paedophilia,” Ranke-Heinemann told IPS.

“In the letters, Ottaviani and Ratzinger order bishops all over the world to report the priests’ sexual abuses against children exclusively to the Vatican, under the threat of excommunication. These threats have led to a total obstruction of judiciary inquiries, other state law enforcement actions, and to impunity,” Ranke-Heinemann added.

Ranke-Heinemann said that the only penalty for the abusers has been their “continued relocation. They are continuously transferred from one place to another. This allows them to walk abroad and be up to their mischief in total impunity.”

On Feb. 22, the German justice minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, in a television interview with the German public network ARD, charged that “the (German) Catholic church does not appear inclined to cooperate with the prosecution” of sexual abuse.

Indeed, the German Catholic hierarchy reacted to the revelations through a short written apology given out at a press conference on Feb 22 by Bishop Robert Zollitsch, chairperson of the German bishops’ conference.

Zollitsch, read out the apology calling the abuse ‘’a nauseating crime,’’ but declined to take questions from reporters.

One German bishop, Walter Mixa, even tried to exculpate the church by blaming the transgressions on the ”so called sexual revolution of the 1960s and the 1970s, during which many progressive moral critics encouraged sexual intercourse between adults and teenagers…”

‘’The German bishops have not realised the dimension of the crimes,” commented Christian Weisner, a theologian at the Catholic reformist movement ‘We are the Church’.

“The Catholic church needs a revolution, a new approach to sexuality, and to the prosecution of such crimes. Otherwise, its reputation will be ruined forever,” Weisner said.

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