Church in the World
German priests challenge bishops on abuse dataChrista Pongratz-Lippitt - 13 August 2011
Just six weeks ahead of Pope Benedict’s visit to his native Germany, a small but influential group of German priests has openly confronted the bishops over the Church’s approach to dealing with the abuse crisis.
At the end of June, the German bishops’ conference unanimously decided to go ahead with two three-year projects on church sex-abuse cases in order to restore the Church’s credibility after last year’s flood of abuse revelations. All 27 German dioceses would give full access to all personnel files to the Criminological Research Institute in Lower Saxony in order to determine the pattern and causes of clerical sexual abuse over at least the last 10 – in some cases the last 65 – years.
The Network of Catholic Priests, an informal association of 300-500 German priests close to the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter and the Linz Priests’ Circle, first wrote to the bishops privately protesting that opening diocesan files would be a violation of their rights. The network is strongly against such reforms as relaxing the celibacy rule, giving more power to the laity and further promoting ecumenism, arguing that Catholics who back these reforms should become Protestant.
On 5 August the bishops’ conference published a declaration signed by bishops’ conference secretary Fr Hans Langendörfer and the director of the Criminological Research Institute, Christian Pfeiffer, defending their policy and detailing how the data which the criminologists receive would be coded, made anonymous, and thus fully protected. The entire project complied fully with the data protection standards applied to research work, the bishops’ declaration emphasised.
Later the same day, the network published its own accusations publicly online. The two-page statement ends thus: “We are shattered by the lack of trust in us priests and the obvious helplessness of our bishops – in whose hands we literally put our destiny when we were ordained – and who cannot defend us against blanket accusations in public. The fact that our personal rights are being violated as our agreement was not sought shows that the cooperation between bishops and priests in Germany must change if vocations to the priesthood are to have any future at all. We therefore ask the German bishops to think over what they have done and to withdraw from the project.”
Asked by Kathnet on 8 August about the network’s position, the spokesman of the German bishops’ conference, Matthias Kopp, said: “The question of data protection and the handling of personnel data was fully gone into on 5 August in the statement signed by … Fr Langendörfer. There is nothing to add.” And Christian Pfeiffer told Domradio.de that the network’s accusations were “incomprehensible”.
“Everyone can read how we plan to proceed on our homepage and can see that we as researchers will have no contact whatsoever with priests’ personal files. These will only be seen by those diocesan employees whose job it has always been and still is to deal with them,” he said. “The aim is to find out what particular characteristics these priests have, what families they come from, to trace their life stories and perhaps discover what led them to become perpetrators.”
The confrontation comes at a time when the bishops’ attempts to hold the German Church together on the centre ground are coming under ever greater pressure. The Pope’s ecumenical push is strongly supported by theologians and “liberal” Catholics but resisted by ultra-conservatives. Some Lutherans meanwhile want the Pope to “admit” that Catholics profited from the Reformation.
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