The results of a four-year study of clerical sexual abuse in the 27 German dioceses commissioned and financed by the German bishops’ conference shows that at least 4.4 per cent of German priests were guilty of abusing minors between 1946 and 2014.
The summary with which the study ends, was leaked to the online versions of two German weeklies, Die Zeit and Der Spiegel, on 12 September, two weeks ahead of the plenary when it was scheduled for release. The entire 350-page study will be made public on 25 September when the German bishops’ conference meets for its autumn plenary.
The study was carried out by a research consortium of psychiatrists, criminologists, sociologists and psychologists from the universities of Heidelberg, Mannheim and Giessen which are independent of the Church.
The study found that 1,670 priests sexually abused 3,677 children and minors between 1946 and 2014; 51,6 per cent of the victims were younger than 13 when they were first abused and 83 per cent of the abuse was deliberately planned and most frequently took place in the perpetrators’ private apartments. In more than 60 per cent of the documented cases, the offence was not reported.
A whole chapter of the report is devoted to systematic cover up of abuse cases. Inner church proceedings against the perpetrators were only initiated in every third case. Only 7.8 per cent of the 1,670 perpetrators were severely punished, that is had their priesthood revoked (41) or were excommunicated (88). No action was undertaken against 154 abusers and 103 were merely reprimanded. The most usual “punishments” were early retirement, forbidding priests to celebrate Mass, therapy, a low fine or even just sending the perpetrators on retreat.
However, as the authors of the study expressly underline in their summary, “these figures are a low estimate” as they did not have access to original church files but were only given anonymised documents by diocesan staff.
In at least two dioceses, moreover, files had been manipulated or destroyed.
Furthermore, abuse in religious orders as, for instance, at the Jesuit Canisius College or the Benedictine Monastery of Ettal, was not included in the study. Neither were the 500 victims of the famous Regensburger Domspatzen Choir or priests who had abused children in church homes. The authors also did not have access to reports on cases that German dioceses had passed to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, they said.
The big and fundamental difference between the Grand Jury in Pennsylvania’s study and that of the Royal Commission in Australia at the end of 2017 and the German study is that the former were undertaken by independent institutions whereas the latter was commissioned and financed by the German bishops’ conference and was therefore “not really independent”, the authors of Die Zeit report point out. In Germany, it should be said, the public prosecutors may only investigate cases which are not statute-barred.
The German bishops’ conference has deplored the leak of the results. “The irresponsible premature publication of the study is a severe blow especially with regard to the victims”, Bishof Stephan Ackermann, who is responsible for abuse affairs in the bishops’ conference, underlined in a press statement. The results of the study were most distressing and shameful but the bishops would meet the challenge, he said.