Pope acts to end cover-up of child sex abuse in Catholic church

by Kira Kirschbach
Pope Francis has strengthened the rules about reporting child sex abuse. Yet in spite of the new attitude, journalists still cannot get a complete picture of the extent and the causes of abuse in church institutions.

In Leipzig, a woman tells the tragic story of her childhood to a circle of listeners. She was abused by her stepfather. She tells of pain and suffering. She tells her story with poems and gestures. Ursula Schieber is intelligent, reticent and very correct. Thanks to the love and understanding of her husband and therapy she was able to overcome her fears and take a step towards publicising her story. She is not a victim. But the pain stays forever in her soul. Ursula Schieber from Erfurt decided, perhaps for the first time, to reveal her story at the Catholic conference in Leipzig.

“Not being a victim any more” is also important to Christina Krüsi from Switzerland. She was abused “in the name of God”. As a child she spent a “hellish” year being molested at a missionary station in the forest of northern Bolivia. Krüsi’s parents worked there as helpers. The attacker threatened her with death and persuaded her that he was doing it “for the Lord God”. Her story has been published in Switzerland as a book and documentary film. The priest was not Catholic but a freethinker.

Pope puts bishops under pressure

Blind faith is often the norm in religious organisations. That is no secret since the European society became aware of the role of priests in sexual violence. A great scandal flared up when the Catholic church revealed its own story of sexual abuses.

Last year the Pope introduced a law for bishops who hush up sexual abuse cases. Now he has gone a step further, including also failure to protect people for whom the church has a duty of care.

In a public decree on 4 June, the Pope sets out the process of de-thronement (unfrocking) for bishops who are guilty of neglecting the duty of care to an underage child or a vulnerable adult. Bishops can also lose their jobs for other gross misconduct – for example in financial matters. Pope Francis repeated the call he has made in the past for zero tolerance of child abuse. In his teaching “Amoris laetitia” – “The joy of love” directed at the Catholic church’s family mores, he denounced the sexual abuse of children as “one of the most scandalous and perverse facts of modern life”.

Up to now there was no proper process for such cases and no effective way of handling them in the church’s own courts. For bishops who protect priests in their employ who are accused there was no sanction in church law. According to the Catholic News portal there was no even any punishment foreseen for bishops who abuse their official positions.

 “The sexual abuse of children becomes even more scandalous when it happens in places where they should be protected, especially in families, in schools and in Christian parish communities and institutions, the Pontiff continues in his latest teaching. The Catholic church has been shaken by numerous cases worldwide which often go back for decades.

Did the Catholic church block reporting of abuse?

Yet the role of the Catholic church has been noticeably absent from media coverage of the scandal. In an interview with ECPMF, Kirsten Anders, editor of the the Catholic newspaper Konradsblatt said:

The public debate started in 2012 when the first cases of abuse in the church were published. It was widely discussed in society – and a problem for the Catholic church which had kept silent on these matters for a long time.”

Kirsten Anders Kirsten Anders, editor of the the Catholic newspaper Konradsblatt (Photo: Kira Kirschbach)

But Anders is positive about how the scandal was dealt with: “I must say that of course journalists were able to speak freely about it. And I think the Catholic church reacted to our publications and made an effort to deal with it. I cannot think of one case where journalists were hindered from reporting.“

Despite this optimistic assertion, this could be far from reality. In Leipzig there was no opportunity for journalists to ask questions about the root causes of the systematic abuse in Catholic institutions. It is obvious that the discussion is still something of a taboo. And as ever it is difficult for journalists to learn the truth about official facts which remain with Catholic authorities: Where can we find up to date statistics about sexual violence in the Catholic church? Who are the attackers and where are they? What are the causes of the problem and how hard is the contemporary church trying to keep them secret?

In February 2014 an expert panel of the United Nations accused the Vatican of systematically covering up the abuse and demanded an independent investigation of the cases. Also Uli Fricker, political editor at Südkurier, does oppose the position that the Catholic church has been completely open about the scandal: “Journalists cannot claim to know whether or not the sexual abuse situation in the church is getting better or not,” he says. And accuses the Catholic authorities of complicating investigations: “The main thing is to listen to the victims. So first we must be able to find them! The church does not want to talk about them. And many cases date back years and decades. That means laborious digging through archives. And those who were responsible at the time are retired or no longer alive. And that is the end of the research.”

This is the fourth time that sexual abuse has been on the agenda for the annual Catholic conference in Germany. And the organisers clearly want to talk about it – but only about cases that are not directly connected with the Catholic church. The two victims they presented were open and sincere. The organisation, on the other hand, is still a closed book.

Get in Contact

fact finding mission analysis