What the pope should learn from the sex abuse scandals in his home country

I have just returned from a short family visit in Germany, and, while there, some of the conversations with my family were about the recent revelations of clergy sex abuse in Germany and how they compared to the scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church in the United States and Ireland.

Much of what has recently come out in the German media has been sickeningly familiar to Catholics in the United States: decades of cover-ups by church officials, reassignments of pedophile priests to positions that allowed them to continue their crimes, and a ubiquitous almost complete disregard by church officials for the well-being of children their institutions were supposed to educate, nurture, and protect.

However, there was one aspect to the German scandals that, as far as I know, has not been reported anywhere in the United States and that may offer a glimmer of hope and some important lessons for church leaders around the world.

What I'm talking about is the fact that the revelations of the scandals in the past few weeks were not the result of investigative journalists or probing state's attorneys. These scandals first came to light because German Jesuit officials actively pursued rumors and allegations of sexual abuse by members of their order in Jesuit-run boarding schools. Rather than continuing the modus operandi that had been in place in their own order and that still remains the standard among church leaders worldwide, the principal of one of those schols, Father Klaus Mertes, S.J., and the provincial of the German Jesuits, Father Stefan Dartmann, S.J. sought out and appointed a highly respected, independent, non-Catholic attorney who is an expert in child protection. The attorney, Ursula Raue, investigated and corroborated allegations by former boarding school students, leading Mertes in January to break the customary silence of church leaders and, on his own initiative, to publicly acknowlege and apologize for the abuse by two Jesuit priests who had been teachers at his school.

From there the revelations have snowballed, so far involving more than 150 allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and lay teachers at church-run institutions in Germany. Undoubtedly, the numbers will continue to grow and the widespread failings and cover-ups of other church leaders will further erode the moral authority of the Catholic Church in Germany and around the world.

In his January 20 letter to former students of the Canisius-Kolleg in Berlin, Mertes wrote something that other church leaders should take to heart: "Besides the shame and shock about the extent of the abuse in each individual case and in the–already evident–accumulation, we here at the school need to work on ways to prevent becoming guilty again by refusing to acknowledge reality. Such refusal to acknowledge reality often already begins when one decides that one doesn't want to know, even if one feels that one should really look more closely. This is a challenge for the personal courage of each individual as well as for the review of structures. The question becomes unavoidable: which structures in our schols, in Catholic youth ministry, and in the Catholic Church in general make it possible that abuse happens and that it can so often be covered up."

And in his initial statement, Dartmann, the provincial, acknowledged that the investigation headed by Raue also needed to examine the cover-up by his own order, i.e. "what those who at that time were responsible in both the school and the order knew about the abuse cases at the Canisius-Kolleg and what consequences were drawn or not drawn with regard to the perpetrators."

As the president of the German bishops' conference is scheduled to meet with Pope Benedict XVI later this month and the pope prepares to issue his pastoral letter on clergy sex abuse before Easter, Benedict would do well to follow the example of Mertes and Dartmann. As the recent debacle of the Vatican meeting with Irish bishops showed, it is no longer enough to condemn the "heinous crime" of clergy sex abuse. The pope needs to do the one and perhaps only thing left that can help repair the inestimable damage that continues to be wrought by the successive waves of clergy sex abuse in different countries: Urge the entire Catholic Church leadership around the world to actively investigate the record of all church institutions with regard to clergy sex abuse and its enabling and cover-up by bishops and other church leaders.

To restore trust, church leaders can no longer just sit there and hope and pray that the abuse records in their files will never see the light of day. They can no longer afford to "decide that one doesn't want to know," as Mertes put it. The only decent course of action for church leaders around the world is to face reality and, on their own inititative, to appoint an independent and respected outside authority to investigate and reveal the full truth about the dark secrets of clergy sex abuse, while at the same time reaching out to and assisting the victims.

In his upcoming pastoral letter, the pope should demand that individual church leaders around the world step up and assume the kind of "personal courage" required of church leaders today, while actively initiating the kind of  "review of structures" Mertes talked about.  

About the author

Meinrad Scherer-Emunds

Meinrad Scherer-Emunds was the executive editor of U.S. Catholic. He is currently the director of communications for Maryknoll Lay Missioners.