Paedophilia: European Church in need of redemption

Revelations about paedophilia continue to rock the church. Photo : Greg Westfall/Flickr
Revelations about paedophilia continue to rock the church. Photo : Greg Westfall/Flickr
10 March 2010 – El País (Madrid)

After a wave of similar revelations swept through the United States and Ireland, cases of past child abuse in the Roman Catholic Church and affiliated institutions are cropping up all over the continent. Following cautious and ultimately unsatisfactory reactions from the ecclesiastical top brass and the Vatican, national authorities have been compelled to take action.

As outrage spreads in the wake of countless cases of sexual abuse at Church-affiliated institutions in Germany, justice minister Sabine Leutheusser has announced she is going to take the matter up with the bishops. Even if the cases are now statute-barred (these crimes cannot be prosecuted after 10 years in Germany), the victims should receive “financial compensation”. “That would make for a certain measure of justice, even if there is no way to remedy the injustices they suffered,” the justice minister said. The German government is also setting up a meeting to discuss the issue, and the Bishops’ Conference has now agreed to take part.

A host of scandals

The German public is appalled at the latest revelations aired by German TV broadcaster ARD on 8 March. They concern another case of systematic abuse at a school run by the Protestant foundation Educon, which takes care of children suffering from autism and other mental disorders. The Düsseldorf public prosecutor’s office has launched an investigation of the 17 faculty members there.

Meanwhile in the Netherlands, on 9 March the Dutch Bishops’ Conference decided to get right to the bottom of the matter: over 200 cases of sexual abuse have been reported at various Dutch boarding schools. While the first offences date back to the 1960s in a boarding school run by Salesian priests, other establishments in the Netherlands have since been incriminated as well. The bishops said they were “profoundly shaken by the shocking cases of sexual abuse revealed over the past few days”.

The media broke that scandal in February upon receiving allegations of abuse from various alumni of a boarding school in ’s-Heerenberg, in the east of the country. The bishop of Rotterdam Ad van Luyn, who used to teach at that very school, denies any knowledge of the abuse.

Yet more revelations in Austria

The Dutch paper De Telegraaf added to the accusations on 9 March, reporting that a former student of a school run by nuns said he was abused by the sisters when he was 11.

The very same day in Austria, the press revealed that two institutions in the country, one of which is a boarding school, were the site of sexual abuse of minors in the 1970s and ’80s.

Bruno Becker, the Father Superior of St. Peter’s Abbey in Salzburg, admitted to abusing a 12-year-old over 40 years ago, adding that he told the ecclesiastical authorities in 2009 after his victim contacted him. This year, in a letter to the victim, the priest offered to buy his silence for €5,000, even though the crime is now statute-barred.

The victim in question said he was abused by other priests as well, and for years. One of them has quit the order and the other has requested a transfer to another monastery. In 2005 both were arrested in Morocco for sexual tourism.

Other cases of paedophilia were unearthed, also on 9 March, in the western Austrian region of Vorarlberg. A former student of a private boarding school run by the Cistercian monastery of Mehrerau says he was molested in the 1980s. The perpetrator has confessed and has since been transferred to the nearby Tyrol.

Vatican slow to fully repent

In the face of this deluge of denunciations, the Vatican should have reacted. Its spokesman Father Federico Lombardi came out in defence of the German, Austrian and Dutch Bishops’ Conferences, praising how “swiftly and resolutely” they dealt with the sexual abuse scandals.

And he added that this sort of offence is not confined to the Church, recalling that at the time of the abuse reported in Austria, 57 similar cases were reported to the authorities. Only seventeen took place within the Church, while the other 51 were at other institutions.

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