A new child abuse report has come out in Germany. And it reveals shocking details of past sexual assault by members of the Catholic church. It also serves as another reminder that justice for abuse victims is still a long way off.
When schools become a “prison” of “fear, violence and hopelessness”
The report found there were at least 67 cases of sexual abuse over six decades at the Regensburger Domspatzen boys choir boarding schools in southern Germany. There were also 500 cases of physical abuse. Nine of the 49 members of the Catholic church involved in the scandal were perpetrators of sexual abuse.
The lawyer who investigated the abuse, Ulrich Weber, explained how there had been a “culture of silence”. And he said the head of the choir from 1964 to 1994, Georg Ratzinger, could take part of the blame for “looking the other way and failing to intervene”. Ratzinger is the elder brother of former Pope Benedict XVI. He has denied knowing about the abuse.
Victims from between 1945 and the early 1990s said the schools were like “a prison, hell and a concentration camp”; and they described the experience as “the worst time of their lives, characterised by fear, violence and hopelessness”.
Because of the time that’s passed since the abuses, the alleged perpetrators are unlikely to face criminal charges.
Is it only the Catholic church?
The UN has previously accused the Vatican of “systematically” forging policies which allowed priests to get away with the sexual abuse of thousands of children. The 2015 film Spotlight also highlighted this issue. It looked at the true story of Boston Globe journalists who helped abuse survivors to expose the systematic cover-up of large-scale sexual abuse.
As Patheos.com argues, “religion in general is often a child-abuse breeding ground”. And in 2009, the Vatican’s permanent observer to the UN claimed that ‘only 1.5%-5%’ of Catholic clergy were involved in such abuse. This was a fairly good record, he suggested, when compared to abuse in Protestant and Jewish communities. And he insisted that abuse by family members, babysitters, friends, or neighbours was much more common. Other Catholic commentators have also sought to put the issue in this context; arguing that – in perspective – the Vatican has done fairly well in cracking down on abuse.
But critics have pointed out that the authoritarian nature of the Catholic church has all too often meant that its main priority is to “protect the priest in power and the Catholic hierarchy”. They’ve also stressed that “no other religion has such copious funds, the better to lobby legislatures, pay for a phalanx of slick defense lawyers, and settle abuse cases out of court”. Guardian writer Andrew Brown, meanwhile, has argued that “the Roman Catholic church has had a higher opinion of itself than most, and thus a greater tendency to lie about these things”; and that there were often too “few checks and balances on the misbehaviour of the powerful”.
Is anything changing?
Since he came to power in 2013, Pope Francis has called for more action on sexual abuse. In 2014, for example, he ordered a “zero-tolerance” stance. And in 2016, he announced new church laws which would remove bishops from office if they failed to sack paedophile priests. But he is apparently facing obstacles. Earlier in 2017, for example, he admitted there was a sizeable backlog in complaints; and one church official even suggested that Vatican “bureaucrats and courtiers” were trying to “undermine” the Pope’s efforts.
As The Guardian‘s Andrew Brown says, “safeguards against paedophilia in the priesthood are now among the tightest in the world”; and “your child is less likely to be abused by a Catholic or Anglican priest in the west today than by the members of almost any other profession”. But the continuing revelations about past horrors and cover-ups serve as a sharp reminder. A reminder of the potential for abuse in authoritarian hierarchies like the Catholic church. And a reminder of why there must always be sufficient checks and balances on the most powerful people in society.
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