Order the summer edition here

Concealment, secrecy, intimidation

The guilty shepherds. History of Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church
Forfatter: Thomas Großbölting
Forlag: Herder (Tyskland)
ABUSE / Three men in their forties informed their former school, the Jesuit Canisius College in Berlin, about how two priests had sexually abused them decades ago. This led to countless disclosures – not only of the abuse itself, but of the church's consistent secrecy.


The catalog of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is as long as a bad year. The status as of 2022 can be summed up briefly and brutally: Even after countless scandalous revelations over more than a decade, the church continues to ignore the victims in favor of the abusers. These are protected through the church hierarchy's instrumentarium: concealment, secrecy, intimidation, transfer of criminal priests to new congregations. When Cardinal Reinhard Marx, archbishop of Munich, in June 2021 wants to take responsibility for systemic neglect and offers his resignation, he is refused by the all-powerful Pope in Rome.

Under great pressure and with a rapidly decreasing number of members, the church is trying to repair the damage. However, it stands in the way of itself, through its archaic biblical anchoring and its church law dogmas. Historian Thomas Großbölting explains this opinion in the book The guilty shepherds. History of Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church.

"An authoritarian regime where criticism is silenced."

"The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me to waters where I find rest.” The Bible's beautiful Psalm 23 paints a picture that binds Christendom to this day. This Lord – humanized by Jesus, multiplied by the priesthood – markets himself as The Good. This, Großbölting points out, obligates, while maintaining an unshakable hierarchy: "The distance between shepherd and sheep prevents any equal dialogue; it is the basis of an authoritarian regime where criticism is silenced."

Sexual abuse in Germany

Thus the drop height is given. When the good shepherd commits criminal acts on a large scale, and the scandals can no longer be swept under the rug, the church's house is shaken to its foundations. Slowly. Most of the cases of sexual abuse in Germany took place in the years between 1950 and 1990, and so it often took a quarter of a century for the silence to be broken, demonstrating the scale of the problems. It was not until 1989 that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child saw the light of day. Section 34 reads: "The parties undertake to protect the child against all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. To this end, the parties shall in particular take all appropriate national, bilateral and multilateral measures [...].' The church, however believes in being unbound by state laws. It isees itself accountable only to God, and his laws are its laws, in its own interpretation.

The church sees itself as being unbound by state laws.

Großbölting reports on a decisive turning point in the processing of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. On a January day in 2010, three men in their forties visited their former school in Berlin, the Jesuit Canisius College. Here they informed the management about how two priests had sexually abused them decades ago. Thus they triggered an avalanche that led to countless disclosures not only of the abuse itself, but also of the dealings with it, including the church's consistent secrecy (in their own eyes legitimized by the duty of confidentiality), which made it easy for the culprits to continue the abuse somewhere else. The scandals had ripple effects both nationally and internationally. A new awareness emerged: Sexual abuse in general and especially towards children and young people has been a problem within the church from the very beginning. This was revealed not least by dramatic revelations in the USA and Ireland. (See The world's best Catholics? – spring/22, MODERN TIMES)

Has not decreased in number today

2019 saw the dawn of a new era. Then Pope Francis abolished the current church law and opened for cooperation with secular legal bodies. The new requirement for transparency and disclosure had startling consequences. A few months ago it became known that Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, during his time as bishop in Munich, was aware of a case of gross abuse, without taking any action. He himself warned that this was not true, whereupon he was caught lying. Großbölting: "Sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and, above all, the concealment practices of the church hierarchy had thus reached the top floor of this autocratic system."

Did all the multiple scandals lead to a reduction in the number of abuses? In 2002, the German Bishops' Conference (die Deutsche Bischofskonferenz) developed guidelines for dealing with sexual abuse by clergy. According to access to published personnel data, accusations against them have to date not decreased in number. As for the nature of the abuse, Großbölting points out that "physical violence only characterizes a small part of the cases of abuse". He quotes the definition from the country's processing commission (Auf-arbeitungskommision des Bundes): "Sexual abuse is any act that is carried out against girls and boys against their will or for which they cannot knowingly give their consent due to physical, mental, spiritual or linguistic inferiority."

Repressed sexual drive

In an indictment against the priest Theo Wehren from North Rhine-Westphalia, it is said that boys between the ages of nine and fifteen spent the night in the rectory's guest room or together with the priest in a tent during holiday camps. "Most of the time he had gotten into bed with them, fondled them and touched their genitals. This aroused him erotically, and several of the children had felt the stiff limb against their buttocks. It hadn't come to anal intercourse, but many boys had had to satisfy him with their hands or watch him masturbate." Some of these victims were abused every two to three weeks over a period of seven years. Wehren was eventually brought to trial. The sentence was a one-year suspended prison sentence. He never served time, and it is unknown whether Wehren, who died in 2011, was stripped of his office.

"A lot of boys had had to satisfy him with their hands or watch him masturbate."

Typical consequences for the victims are various psychosomatic complaints such as anxiety, skin rashes, nervousness or heart problems. The pastors of the Church have rarely paid attention to this. As it turns out through all available documentation: Forced celibacy and doctrinally instilled denial of a natural sexuality have led to repressed sexual drive and the temptations of the "forbidden fruit". A vicious circle occurs when the repression is extended to the repression of one's own responsibility, coupled with the isolation from society at large and the notion of one's own superiotity. This edifice of ideas has resulted in a sin-oriented religion, where fighting for the rights of the innocent has been replaced by prayer for the salvation of the guilty.

There are around 1,3 billion Catholics in the world, people who seek answers to fundamental existential questions and who cherish the hope of a reconciliatory justice. Thomas Großbölting concludes in line with good 'giving the defendant the benefit of the doubt' practice: "The question is whether and how such hope can find a home within the church structures."

avatar photos
Ranveig Eckhoff
Eckhoff is a regular reviewer for Ny Tid.

You may also like