Pope Benedict XVI’s strongly worded apology for the child-abuse scandal in Ireland, issued last week, left Germans like myself scratching our heads.
Where is the apology for the abuses in Germany? After all, even as the number of Irish abuse cases mounts, the depth and history of abuse in Germany is just now becoming clear — more than 250 cases are known, with more appearing each day. At least 14 priests are under investigation by the authorities.
Though Germany is a secular country and Catholics make up only a third of the population, the scandal has engendered a national debate — about religious education, about single-sex institutions and, above all, about the role of celibacy in the Catholic Church.
And while the scandal is not unique to Germany, the current wave of abuse revelations sweeping Europe feels particularly German, because the pope is German: Benedict was once Joseph Ratzinger, the archbishop of Munich and Freising and long a leading voice of conservative German Catholics.
While it’s too soon to know for sure how the scandals will affect church membership, rumor has it that the number of resignations by churchgoers in Munich, where the Catholic Church is traditionally strong, has doubled or even tripled in the last month.
Catholics in Bavaria are especially outraged about the case of the priest Peter Hullermann. In 1979, Father Hullermann was accused of abuse in the western German city of Essen; he wasn’t convicted, and he was soon brought to Munich, for therapy.
He was allowed to continue working with children, but was soon convicted of abuse and sentenced to 18 months probation. Yet the diocese still allowed him to work with children — up until last week, when news of his history forced the church to suspend him.
One almost has the impression that the church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is responsible for cases of sexual abuse, told the dioceses to follow a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Did Archbishop Ratzinger know? His defenders say no. But Germans would like to hear it from the pope himself.
To be fair, there is possible wisdom in Benedict’s silence — with sex scandals involving priests erupting from Austria to the Netherlands, the situation is too fluid for a definitive papal statement.
And yet Pope Benedict should also recognize how precarious the Catholic Church is in Germany. Like Americans, Germans have already had to cope with a general loss of trust in public institutions. First there were the bankers, with their insane bets and bonuses. Then the politicians, who couldn’t stop the bankers. Now there is a loss of trust in the church.
But unlike in America, religion in Germany is already weak. In the former Communist east, only 2 percent of the population go to church on Sunday; in the western states, the number is 8 percent. Some dwindling congregations have had to sell their church buildings.
So far the church is benefiting from the breadth of sexual abuse scandals. Victims are also coming forward from Protestant institutions, from secular boarding schools and elite academies, from children’s homes. Many critics argue that any closed institution where male educators have charge of male children runs the risk of sexual abuse.
Conservative Catholic bishops go further, saying that the sexual abuse committed by their priests is a general social problem, traceable not to the church but to the sexualization of society, to the zeitgeist, to the sins of the 1968 generation. The truth, they suggest, was that the evil had struck in all sectors of society. Others have warned of the dangers of a witch hunt, and some have even highlighted a new form of political correctness.
But the figures available so far show that the problem is especially severe in the Catholic Church. Alois Glück, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics, has urged consideration of the “church-specific conditions that favor sexual abuse,” which many have taken as a call for the church to reconsider the matter of its priests’ celibacy.
This is yet another difference between the Irish and American scandals and our own. Ireland and America are deeply religious places; if priestly celibacy is not as well understood there as it once was, it is nevertheless respected.
Germany is not only a secular country, but a sexually liberated one as well. Many Germans find the Vatican’s demand of priestly celibacy completely alien, and we recognize it as a historical, rather than holy, tradition, going back to a decree by Pope Benedict VIII in 1022. Indeed, in a poll conducted last week, 87 percent of Germans said that celibacy is no longer appropriate.
It’s not hard, then, for us to draw the conclusion — fair or not — that the church’s problems are rooted in celibacy. Much more so than in the United States, the German debate is about the fundamental structure of the Catholic church: Must a person be chaste to exercise the office of a priest? Does this condition not attract sexually disturbed and pedophiliac men, who count on cover and understanding in the bosom of the church?
How Benedict handles the issue in the coming weeks will determine not only how well the German church endures, but whether it can survive in its current form at all. None of the victims has yet sought reparations, but sooner or later, the church will have to offer compensation. The American church has paid $2 billion to abuse victims since 1992; can the German church afford the same?
Peter Schneider, the author of Eduard’s Homecoming. This essay was translated by John Cullen from the German.