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Spotlight Report

Catholic hierarchy in Germany rejects criticism on abuse

Cardinal resists comparison to US

By Lucian Kim, Globe Correspondent, 8/4/2002

BERLIN - The German Catholic church, which long regarded pedophilia among the clergy as a particularly American phenomenon, is now bracing for a possible crisis of credibility among the country's more than 27 million Catholics.

In recent weeks, half a dozen dioceses have come under intense media scrutiny for past abuse by priests and attempts by the church hierarchy to hush up the scandals. Critics are calling the revelations only the tip of the iceberg, while the church scrambles to control the damage.

''The German bishops are making an effort from the very start, so that it will hopefully not come to a loss of confidence in the church,'' said Martina Hoehns, spokeswoman for the German Bishops Conference. Later this month, a commission of specialists, formed by the bishops in April, will present recommendations on how to prevent and deal with sexual abuse of children by clergy.

The German church has come under fire for being especially stubborn on the issue of pedophile priests. There is no central church authority in a position to evaluate the scope of the problem, and each diocese does as it sees fit in cases of abuse, acting without national guidelines.

In Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Belgium, national churches have addressed the issue by appointing ombudsmen or establishing hot lines. In Ireland, there has been a loud and emotional public outcry about abuse in the church. In Poland, an archbishop stepped down this spring over charges that he had abused seminarians.

In Germany, the church establishment was sticking to its guns.

''I firmly believe that there are clear quantitative, as well as qualitative, differences between the scandals in the US and the way of dealing with the issue in Germany,'' Cardinal Karl Lehmann, head of the German Bishops Conference, said in an interview with Der Spiegel in June. ''Why should I wear the Americans' shoe if it doesn't fit me?''

Three weeks later, the magazine publicized several wrenching cases of sexual abuse of children by clergymen, including one in Lehmann's own diocese. When victims talked, church officials took no punitive measures but instead moved priests to other parishes.

For example the magazine cited the case of a 62-year-old cleric who, with a criminal record of involvement in a child pornography ring and of sexually abusing minors, is still on the payroll of the diocese of Aachen in western Germany.

The German church ''thought they could hold down the cover on a pot that was boiling over,'' said Annegret Laakmann of the country's chapter of International Movement We Are Church. ''I think every diocese will have cases, but the church doesn't have a big interest in making them public.''

We Are Church, a Catholic lay group, advocates abolishing celibacy for priests, ordaining women, and adopting a more open attitude toward sexuality and dissent within the church.

In June, the organization opened a hot line in Germany for victims of abuse. There have been about 15 calls so far, but Laakmann said she doesn't expect more than 20 to 30 per year. In Germany, there is no culture of grassroots victims' organizations, such as the US group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, nor of multimillion-dollar lawsuits for recompense.

Pedophilia in the church was unlikely to reach the same magnitude in Germany that it has in the United States, Laakmann said, sinceGermans are more intimidated by the idea of taking on the church and concerned with their reputations in the community if they do.

Still, the church is also concerned about its reputation in a country where one-third of the population calls itself Catholic but only a tiny fraction actually attends church.

The German Bishops Conference is banking on the upcoming report of its commission on sex abuse, which includes doctors, psychologists, and therapists, to counter claims that the church is ignoring the problem and the victims. Lehmann, who, after recent revelations, publicly expressed regret for abuses by German priests, has shown interest in setting up nationwide guidelines that would apply to all dioceses.

''If we can get across to the public that we're dealing with it truthfully and responsibly, then we can hope that there will not be a loss of trust,'' said Hoehns, the bishops' spokeswoman. ''But I don't know how things will develop. You'd have to be a prophet.''

This story ran on page A4 of the Boston Globe on 8/4/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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