27 November 2019, The Tablet

Schönborn spells out shocking reality of clerical sex abuse

The cardinal was delivering a lengthy, detailed lecture on clerical sex abuse at the University of Vienna.

Schönborn spells out shocking reality of clerical sex abuse

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn at the Synod of Bishops on Young People last year.
Vandeville Eric/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images

Clerical abuse is a “massive reality” in the Church caused among other factors by “closed systems” and the overinflated authority of priests, according to Cardinal Christoph Schönborn.

In a 50-minute lecture at Vienna University, one of a weekly series the University is holding on “The Sexual Abuse of Minors: Crime and Responsibility” in the winter semester, Cardinal Schönborn described in detail how, after listening to abuse victims over the past 20 or so years, he had come to the conclusion that clerical spiritual and sexual abuse – but above all the abuse of clerical power – was a “massive reality” in the Catholic Church.

The cardinal said: “I am not speaking on this painful subject as an expert but as someone who has repeatedly been confronted with abuse and who has learnt a great deal about it – but certainly not enough. That is why, as a first step, I am going to relate – quite unsystematically – what I have learnt about abuse and then try to sum up what must be done about it.”

He had learnt that it was normal for abuse victims to take decades to talk about the abuse they had experienced as the primary concern of perpetrators was to swear them to silence “with all the means at hand”. If and when the victims finally got round to to talking about the abuse, they underwent a second “massive” trauma, which was often worse than the first, he said.

Clerical abuse victims were especially terrified of breaking their silence, as they were often told by their priest perpetrators that it would be a grave sin to disclose the abuse.

He knew of priests who had forced their victims to swear in front of the tabernacle that they would remain silent for ever. “If you ever tell anyone, you will go to hell," is literally drummed into them, often with force, he said.

And it is the more terrible if the priest then delegates the blame onto the victim and, for example, says: "It’s your fault that I now have a stomach ulcer."

And yet one of the most important things he had learnt was how crucial it was for victims to talk about the abuse they had experienced “as otherwise they can never be healed”, the cardinal said.

He had first come into close contact with clerical abuse victims in 1995 after his predecessor, the then Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër, was accused of sexual abuse, the cardinal recalled.

He had succeeded Groër and for the next three years had listened at length to Groër’s victims. It had been “shattering to discover how closely clerical sexual abuse is linked with the Sacrament of Reconciliation and to discover that it often begins in the confessional.”

He had finally come to the conclusion that what they told him was the truth and had assured them that he believed them. In March of that year (1998), he, together with three other Austrian bishops, had publicly declared that they had reached the “moral certainty” that the allegations against Groër were “in essence” correct.

They felt obliged to declare this publicly, they said, as the Church’s pastoral work would otherwise “be burdened with the crippling suspicion that the reputation of a cardinal is more important than the well-being of young people.”

The four bishops’ declaration had led to great difficulties with Rome, Schönborn explained, “but it was necessary to speak out publicly in a situation in which churchmen were openly lying about what had happened.”

In Rome, on their ad Limina visit a few months later, (November 1998), the Austrian bishops criticised the Church’s handling of the sex-abuse allegations against Groer in their report for the Pope, but their fellow Austrian bishop, the late Kurt Krenn of Sankt Pölten, a staunch supporter of Groer, publicly contradicted his fellow bishops and told “the liars to hold their traps”, Schönborn recalled.

“I also experienced the same thing during my controversy with Cardinal (Angelo) Sodano (the former Secretary of State from 1991-2006); who literally said – to my face – ‘Victims? That is what you say!’” Two months later, he had been called to Rome and, in Sodano’s and Pope Benedict’s presence, had had to apologise to the Pope for criticising Sodano, he recalled.

“Certain people in the Vatican lied”, Schönborn said looking back at what had happened. They had vilified the victims in order to protect the Church, he said, “but the Church is best served when the truth is revealed. ‘The truth will set you free’”, he recalled.

It had been much the same earlier this year, when he told Doris Wagner-Reisinger, in a televised interview that he believed her when she said that she had been raped by a priest when she was a member of “The Work”, Schönborn said.

He had once again been widely criticised for saying he believed her. High-ranking churchmen had accused him of believing abuse victims without being able to prove whether the abuse had actually taken place, Schönborn said. He was fully aware that fabrication on the part of victims was possible.

“When I insist that I believe a victim, however, I am speaking diagnostically as it were. A conversation with an abuse victim is not a legal proceeding.” The cardinal then went on to trace how, in his opinion, clerical sexual abuse came about.

“Benedict XVI attempted a diagnosis which I do not wish to criticise but merely want to correct by citing a few figures. Benedict is of the opinion that clerical sexual abuse has its origins in 1968 Movement. The figures for Austria show a totally different picture”, said Schönborn.

In Austria, 60 per cent of the clerical sexual abuse cases had been committed between 1940 and 1969. The number had then fallen to 27 per cent between 1970-79 and since the year 2000 was just 0.9 per cent.

That the majority of cases had occurred before the council was certainly “food for thought”, he said. One reason for this had been that the pre-conciliar Church had been a closed system. "In closed systems abuse occurs far more frequently than in open ones.”

With its full churches and intensive religious life, the pre-conciliar Church had been fascinating, the cardinal recalled, “but the authority priests had had then was over-inflated to an unhealthy extent” and so it was “obviously” a lot easier for abuse of power and sexual abuse to spread.

It had now been statistically proved that boarding schools facilitated the abuse of minors. “Abuse has occurred far less frequently now that we no longer have boarding schools in Austria,” said Schönborn.

It was “both shattering and confusing” that so many founders of the new movements had turned out to be clerical sexual abusers, he said and asked: “What are the roots of this abuse on the part of church leaders?”

Here again, many of the movements were “closed institutions”, which facilitated abuse, he pointed out. For him, his predecessor Cardinal Groër, the late Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, the late Dominican Fr Marie-Dominique Philippe, founder of the Community of St John, Gérard Criossant, founder of the Community of the Beatitudes and the Chilean priest and Fr Fernando Karadima had all been examples of “guru personalities” who had been influential in the spiritual formation and careers of dozens of priests and of several bishops.

When he first heard of Fr Marie-Dominique Philippe’s abuse he had asked himself over and over again how this was possible as he had had a room next to him at Fribourg for months, Schönborn said. He had personally experienced the Karadima case on a visit to Chile.

It had been one of the most “dramatic” abuse cases in his eyes, as it had deeply split the Chilean clergy and had plunged the Chilean Church into an abyss.

With regard to charismatic religious leaders, it was important to look out for the following four benchmarks which were alarm signals: first, founders who considered themselves flawless and behaved like gurus; secondly, exclusive allegiance to the founder or leader; thirdly, founders who threatened members with withdrawal of their affection or love; and fourthly, and “most dangerous of all” in his eyes, when the community was divided into those who were followers of the founder and those who were not.

“If you are ‘in’ you accept almost everything – even abuse, just in order to belong," the cardinal said.

In 2010, the year in which in his own words an abuse “tsunami” had swept through the Church in the German-speaking countries, he had decided that the Austrian Church would follow the way of the truth.

A state commission completely independent of the Church had been established to investigate abuse cases and compensate victims.

Since then, the Austrian Church has received a lot of praise for the way it was coping with clerical abuse and was one of four countries that were held up as role models at the Meeting on the Protection of Minors in the Church in the Vatican in February this year, Schönborn recalled. “Every crisis creates opportunities for purification and that can only come about through the truth”, he concluded.

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