German Catholic abuse hotline welcomed, but much more is needed say critics

By Ecumenical News International
April 1, 2010

The Roman Catholic Church in Germany has launched an official telephone hotline for victims of sexual abuse in its institutions - writes Anli Serfontein.

At a press conference in Trier, Bishop Stephan Ackermann of the German Bishops' Conference said on 30 March 2010 that the helpline will be staffed by psychologists and social workers from the diocese of Trier.

Ackermann was appointed in February by the German bishops to handle mounting allegations of abuse in Germany's Catholic Church.

The crisis began when a school in Berlin run by the Jesuit order announced in January that there had been systematic abuse of pupils by three priests in the 1970s and 1980s. After the school had appointed a lawyer, it appealed for victims of abuse to come forward.

Soon it emerged that the priests involved also worked at other church-run schools and the problem grew. The scandal has so far affected most German dioceses.

Ackermann looked distressed when he told journalists, "I have in the past weeks had to read shocking examples and learned how strongly such an experience influences the life of every person." He said even long after they have happened, the occurrences have "really destructive traits".

Ackermann said, "Victims can now get a chance to come forward and report what they have kept silent about for decades because of shame." The bishop noted, "I have read many emails in the last weeks where victims have in detail portrayed their abuse and the after effects, and I must tell you honestly that I can only read that in small doses. It is shocking and one cannot just read it like regular post."

On 29 March Ackermann announced that 20 priests have been embroiled in cases of sexual abuse in his diocese between 1950 and 1990. He said although he was shocked by the number involved, "It is the reports of the victims that really upsets me and shocks me."

Asked whether the church was guilty of a cover-up, Ackermann said, "Those in church positions who did not clear up the problem, although they could have and should have, are of course guilty [of covering up]."

The bishop repeated an appeal to perpetrators of sexual abuse to admit their deeds, saying, "Only then will a way be possible to get to the truth and reconciliation."

The helpline should serve as a "door opener" for victims, said Andreas Zimmer, who runs the Counselling Services in the diocese of Trier. After an initial conversation with victims and listening to their wishes on what further action should be taken, they will be passed on to other professional counselling services in their own dioceses. "We (as the Church) have an obligation to fulfil," he said.

Zimmer said they chose "experienced counselling staff [psychologists or social workers] with many years of professional experience, who are highly qualified to deal with traumatised people and are competent in the field of sexual violence".

A spokesperson for the movement We are Church, Christian Weisner, told Ecumenical News International he thought that a service operating three days, and afternoons-only will not be enough for a country-wide helpline.

"It can only be a beginning," Weisner told ENI. "It is a step in the right direction, but should have been done in 2002 already. It is too little, too late."

We are Church has run a telephone helpline for victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy since 2002 when the Catholic sexual abuse scandal broke in the United States. So far 400 victims have called in, 90 in the last two months.

Weisner said that questions around the cause of the sexual abuse in church institutions will be debated for a long time. His organisation has called for the policy of mandatory celibacy of Catholic clergy to be abolished.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]


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