German Archbishop Says Church Failed Abuse Victims

Protesters in Freiburg, Germany i i

hide captionProtesters demonstrate against sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church at the beginning of the German Bishops Conference in Freiburg on Feb. 22. Anger at both the church and Pope Benedict XVI is rising in Germany as allegations of abuse continue to surface.

Winfried Rothermel/AP
Protesters in Freiburg, Germany

Protesters demonstrate against sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church at the beginning of the German Bishops Conference in Freiburg on Feb. 22. Anger at both the church and Pope Benedict XVI is rising in Germany as allegations of abuse continue to surface.

Winfried Rothermel/AP

The head of Germany's Roman Catholic bishops issued a strongly worded Good Friday statement denouncing what he called "the appalling crimes of sexual abuse" and the "great injustice" done to victims. Archbishop Robert Zollitsch called on the church to confront its past failures in handling abuse cases and called on Catholics to pray this Easter weekend for those abused by priests.

But the decision to acknowledge the abuse seems unlikely to assuage the anger of victims groups. They continue to press for action from independent investigators and the German government, saying the Catholic Church has shown itself unable to investigate its own crimes.

This week, the German Catholic Church launched a nationwide hot line for abuse victims. The first day alone, it was flooded with nearly 4,500 calls.

Victims Seek Government Action

Norbert Denef is co-founder of Network B, a new support group for German victims of sexual abuse. He says that as a child, he was drugged and raped by his parish priest. Denef says the church's hot line is absurd: How can victims possibly get any help from those responsible for the abuse? he asks.

"If the mafia were given the opportunity to investigate its own crimes, everyone would think that's crazy. This is similar," Denef says.

Many victims in Germany still feel overlooked, not only by the church but also by the German government. Network B is asking the government to exclude the Catholic Church from the state-organized round-table discussions on abuse due to start in late April.

The group is also asking lawmakers to enact legislation to give victims more time to file charges. In most cases under the current law, victims have just 10 years.

"We won't be walked all over anymore. We are speaking up aggressively. The issue is one of violence, not of sexuality," Denef says.

"I've lodged a complaint with the German parliament demanding that the statute of limitations in civil law be abolished for sexual abuse cases. It's about the victims. We hope our suffering and damage is finally acknowledged," he says.

Denef and Network B are adamant that the Catholic Church is not a credible partner in the effort to get justice for victims or to investigate itself.

Calls For Greater Openness

But others are more optimistic.

Michael Kreuzfelder of the German Catholic Youth Association says the church must be involved. He says the church can start with a more honest and open discussion about sex and sexuality.

"To say it's OK if you talk about sex, and it's OK if you ask questions about this, and it's OK if we discuss this in church — this provides an atmosphere, a culture of talking about sexuality that perhaps leads to an openness. We need more transparency and ... more communication about that," Kreuzfelder says.

Bishop Stephan Ackermann, whom the German Bishops Conference has appointed to handle the abuse cases, this week implored his church to stop treating the issue of sexual abuse as a taboo.

Similar to cases in the United States, the church transferred German priests suspected of pedophilia from parish to parish in many instances, with seemingly little accountability for the perpetrators or concern for the victims.

Germans continue to ask questions about the role of Pope Benedict XVI, when he was archbishop in Munich in the 1980s, in the case of a priest who molested boys and was quickly returned to pastoral work after a short period of therapy.

In his Good Friday statement, Archbishop Zollitsch did not mention any specific cases. But Zollitsch said priests too often focused not on abuse victims but on "a wrongly intended desire to protect the church's reputation." He urged the church to confront its painful record of covering up sexual and physical abuse that he said leaves the church with "sadness, horror and shame."

Catholics On The Defensive

At the Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Berlin's Charlottenburg district, attendance has been up a little this Holy Week.

Some parishioners say they feel under siege. Conchita Ungay says the media are unfairly targeting the pope and the Vatican.

"It looks like now the Catholic Church is the worst thing in the world, and there is a campaign against the church ... in my opinion," she says. The headlines are getting bigger and bigger each day, she says.

"I don't believe this is necessary. I think [the accusations] are exaggerated. They are talking too much about that," Ungay says.

The archbishop's statement Friday may start to bridge the divide between abuse victims and the church in Germany, and it could signal a softening of the defensiveness shown by some members of the German clergy.

The bishop of Regensburg, Gerhard Ludwig Mueller, recently came under fire for a weekend sermon in which he accused the media of a smear campaign, going so far as to mention Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels' campaigns against the church in the same breath.

The comments outraged the head of the German Jewish Council, among many others. The German Journalists Association called Mueller's comments scandalous, polarizing and an attempt to distract from the facts.

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