According to a recent study conducted at the University of Ulm (Germany), the number of minors who suffered sexual abuse within the German Church is much higher than previously assumed. In comparison with other countries, however, this is not surprising—it was to be expected. More surprising has been another finding in the study: the number of victims is equally high in Protestant churches (which in Germany are mostly Lutheran and Reformed). Another horrific discovery is the high percentage of particularly serious crimes committed by the clergy.
When it comes to reacting to abuse in the Church, the Germans are lagging behind the English-speaking world. They are also far behind when it comes to church renewal because the German church establishment is still stuck in the 1970s. Vague concepts of “going further than the changes made by Vatican II,” and of updating doctrine and discipline to be more pleasing to the world, are powerful and widespread attitudes among the bishops. This may also relate to how deeply intertwined the ecclesiastical leadership is with the political and judicial establishment. As elite opinion moves in a progressive direction, the German bishops are sure to follow close behind.
Consequently, the disappointment is now even greater. The Ulm study estimates that over the last 70 years over 110,000 young people suffered sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and that an equal number suffered the same by Protestant ministers. The state seems to have relied on the churches doing their own internal policing. Society has long regarded churches as providers of moral orientation and, therefore, as good role models. However, confidence in the churches is now at an all-time low. In light of the Ulm study, the churches appear to be no better than the rest of the world; for some, the churches are worse—either because of the number of cases or because they claim to demand the highest standards but have fallen far short. In any case, the status of the churches as providers of moral guidance is seriously damaged.
The Ulm study uncovers important facts which need to be read together with other data. It seems that the sexual abuse of minors is not significantly more common among Catholic clergy than among Protestant ministers. When it comes to abuse of minors, religious institutions seem to be quite similar to other associations and groups where adults have a high degree of control and authority over youngsters, which creates opportunities to commit such crimes. The high number of church-related abuse cases in Germany seems principally caused by the high number of young people involved in church activities.
To be clear, such statistical data do not excuse or exculpate the Church, but they are now fundamental for taking the right kind of action rather than devolve the whole crisis into a theological debate about “updating” Catholic ecclesiology or sexual ethics. Abuse of minors is literally everywhere, and, at this point, we still do not know how widespread it is or where it has been particularly virulent. In Germany, a glance at how reform pedagogics or members of the Green Party fared in all this should disabuse anyone of the idea that the whole thing has been caused by “traditional societies.”
Searching for the reasons why priests abuse minors sexually in particular aspects of either Catholic clerical life or Christian ethics turns out to be a grand illusion or deception. Moreover, after the Ulm study, believing that “covering up” was standard operating procedure only for an exclusively male hierarchy is no less convincing. German Protestantism has long embraced democratic principles of church governance, ordained women as pastors and bishops, and adapted its moral teachings to many (post-) modern standards. It has been a thoroughly “woke” form of Christianity for some time, and yet it has also been a place where many sexual abuses happened and were hidden from public view. Once you look at the facts from a critical distance, it becomes ever less tenable to claim that sexual abuse of minors and its cover-up is a typically Catholic, Christian, or religious problem.
For the Church to move forward in building safe environments in its parishes and institutions, this must be a wake-up call. Focusing on ecclesiology, celibacy, or the presence of women in church leadership is misleading; the actual solutions need to be sought elsewhere. Consequently, those who deny these well-documented realities of widespread abuse should not be trusted—some of them are cooking their own ideological dinner on the fire of the present scandals.
The Church has not been a shining example on how best to dealt with abusers. And, still, the present discussion on how to move forward is often based on serious errors. The Church’s failures were institutional, and the greatest ones were moral and doctrinal, and have darkened her mission of making God’s kingdom visible in the world. The insufficient response to abuse of minors (at least in the past) may also be connected to the fact that such acts were, and still are, commonly seen as “sins against the Sixth Commandment.” Even the oft-lauded Code of Canon Law of 1917, which qualifies a number of such sins as canonical crimes, lumps together the abuse of minors with other grave sins. This tendential equalization has not helped: we now see how superiors have treated priests who have committed very different sins in similar ways. There is a useful lesson to be learned from canon law: The classic distinction between sins that involve consentual “accomplices” and those where there is a “perpetrator” and a “victim” needs to be emphasized. Sin is sin, and sins contra sextum are all grave—but that does not mean they are all substantially equal or even similar, or that their treatment and punishment should be considered analogous.
In traditional Catholic language, homosexual acts were called the “worst crime” (crimen pessimum): this is certainly not how people feel today, whether outside or inside the Church. Rather, the worst of all sexual sins is the abuse of minors. In fact, we might need to go a step further and make it clearer that sexual abuse of minors is not only a sexual sin (against the Sixth Commandment), but, more than that, it is an act of violence (against the Fifth Commandment). Never mind exegetical issues about how to properly interpret the Decalogue; equalizing affairs between adults and the abuse of minors opens the door to a Pandora’s box of inadequate reactions. As Catholics, if we do not subscribe to the doctrine of “sin is sin,” we also need to not subscribe to its moralist equivalent “mortal sin is mortal sin” (neither in psychological treatment nor in canonical discipline).
Instead, the Church needs to take facts and figures seriously, both those that show how the Church is not very different from other institutions and those that point to specific problems (e.g., the high number of adolescent boys abused and what that might tell us about the presence of homosexuality in the priesthood). Therefore, the German bishops’ plan to launch a synodal process on celibacy, sexual morality, and clerical power is misguided. It does not take the facts seriously but will instead move the Catholic Church in Germany closer to where its Protestant counterpart has been for decades. The German Episcopal Conference declaring that this process will be “open” to any kind of outcome is disturbing and is reminiscent of the confidence they displayed at the disastrous post-Vatican II Würzburg Synod. That Synod cemented structures of dissent and did not strengthen missionary zeal among German Catholics—quite the opposite. Analogously, we can expect that the now-proposed “synodal process” will not help fight sexual abuse in the Church, and nor will it lead to the desired ecclesial renewal. This is evident to anyone who knows the situation of the Catholic Church in Germany, and more evident still to Lutherans, Anglicans, and other denominations who have chosen “synodal progression” in order to review church doctrine. As the late Catholic philosopher Robert Spaemann observed: “A church which takes the course of adaptation will not be able to work in a missionary way.”
I wonder if Pope Francis is really backing the German process, as Cardinal Marx claims. If he is, he is contradicting his own words at the conclusion of the Vatican abuse summit. If the pope will not hold the German bishops accountable, other bishops will need to because the path the Germans propose is potentially leading away from apostolic tradition, and they show little interest in addressing the present crisis honestly.
Now is the time to get it right, and this requires that we not be distracted or manipulated—neither by political, ecclesial, or theological agendas nor by shallow generalizations. The Church must not aim at appeasing the angry mob but focus instead on the protection of minors and the renewal of clerical life in Germany, Rome, and everywhere else.
Editor’s note: Pictured above, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, speaks to the press on the final day of the meeting on “The Protection of Minors in the Church” in Rome on February 24, 2019. (Photo credit: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)