Saturday, December 4, 2010

German Official Releases Damning Report about Handling of Abuse Cases in Munich Diocese

There seems to be a story emerging in the German media today, about which I'm reading through links provided on the Bishop Accountability website.  The story has to do with a report released yesterday by Marion Westphal, a former judge who was commissioned by the archdiocese of Munich and Freising to compile a report on the abuse situation from 1945-2000 in the Munich archdiocese, using files made available by the archdiocese.  An English-language summary of the report is here.  An English-language discussion of the report is at the site, which summarizes German media reports in English.  For those who can read German, the Bishop Accountability site has linked to German media reports in Spiegel and Stern.

As the report notes, while the German legal system is concerned to pursue the facts relating to abuse cases involving churches in Germany, Westphal had a specific charge from the Munich-Freising archdiocese to do something that goes beyond fact-finding: the charge was to examine any "structural deficiencies" in the records maintained by the church that would impede fact-finding and account for failure to detect clerical abuse of minors and deal with it adequately.

And in this area of record-keeping, Westphal reports a "regrettable state."  There are indicators, she concludes, of a much higher figure than the 159 cases of abuse that are obvious in the records made available to her.  But the state of the records--including evidence that "destruction of documents took place in considerable measure"--makes it very difficult to ascertain the precise number of priests against whom credible allegations of abuse were made.  Or how those cases (and quite a few of the 159 cases about which there are some records) were handled.  Or what final decisions were made vis-a-vis these priests.

Westphal also reports that documents were, in some cases, stored in private dwellings out of the chancery or episcopal palace, and "thus made susceptible to manipulation."  (If anyone with knowledge of Catholic canon law is reading this posting: am I correct to think that canon law forbids storing such diocesan records off-site?)  Even on-site, the documents were, Westphal notes, not secured.

And so,

For these reasons, there were in many cases obvious gaps in the documentation. It was repeatedly impossible to reconstruct events. Vital documentation, affecting for example former activities of the person under  investigation or the reasons for a change of diocese in the case of incardinated priests, was missing in most cases.

Westphal also notes that the files often employ "euphemistic, trivialising language" that disguises what is actually being talked about and makes it difficult to ascertain precisely what the offenses of a particular cleric were. 

She notes, as well, that the reaction of the bishops appear largely to have been to ignore the victims--to ignore what was done to them physically, as well as the long-term psychological consequences of the abuse they endured as children from religious authority figures.  The "serious lack of detection" of clerical abuse of minors by Catholic pastoral officials was, she suggests, directly related to "a completely underdeveloped interest in the facts of the cases," and the unwillingness to investigate and deal with abusive priests was "the result of this disinterest in the fate of the victims and the reluctance to face the conflicts involved."  

There was, in fact, an habitual crass "contempt" on the part of church officials for victims of abuse, she concludes, with an overwhelming concern for safeguarding the image of the church above all.  And, as she notes, "These points are all the more serious because far-reaching sanctions, even such as threaten economic existence, are put in place against lay people, even for slight offences."  (In other words, a lay person can easily lose his or her job in a Catholic institution--with dire economic consequences--simply for coming out of the closet as gay.  But a priest who abuses minors repeatedly will be shielded by the institution, and will experience no economic or social distress.)

In short, a "brotherly community" (i.e., a clerical club) sought to hush up cases of clerical abuse, even to the extent of manipulating and destroying evidence that might be used in legal investigations of cases of abuse of minors.  And in the case of priests who are gay, these problems have been compounded by the possibility of blackmail, due to the church's teaching on homosexuality.

Westphal's conclusion is absolutely chilling:

Instead of following its own mission and abiding by its moral precepts by stemming itself against attitudes that assign victims – and in particular victims of sexual offences – a joint responsibility, and place sexual topics under taboo, the Church has used this long-standing, prevalent social context to promote non-detection of misconduct.

To the same extent, it has not stood up for the rights of the children entrusted to it, and thus shares the responsibility for the fact that the victimised children, through the attitude adopted towards them, have often been exposed to the stress of childhood isolation in addition to that of the offence itself. 

A damning report by a legal authority on the damnable behavior of Catholic pastoral leaders.  Catholic pastoral leaders who, in this case, include the current pope, who was archbishop of the diocese under review here from 1977-1982. 

"Instead of following its own mission and abiding by its moral precepts" and standing up "for the rights of the children entrusted to it," the clerical sector of the Catholic church has closed ranks, acted as though it alone is the church, and as if its own well-being and image counts above even the physical and mental well-being of children sexually abused by priests.

Is it any wonder that an increasing number of people cannot hear what the church preaches about mercy, compassion, and justice with anything but jaded ears?  And that so many of us have chosen to walk away, in sadness?

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