After the publication of a study on sexual abuse in the church in Mecklenburg in the days of the GDR, Hamburg's Archbishop Stefan Hess announced further investigations into possible cases of abuse in the North on Monday. These should "take a look at the entire area of today's Archdiocese and the entire time up to the present day," explained Hesse in the morning in the General Vicariate.
According to the archbishop, the study showed that the political system in the GDR favored the abuse of power by the accused priests and the cover-up of the crimes. However, the authors of the study from the University of Ulm came to the conclusion that "despite the challenging situation of the Catholic Church in the GDR, the main responsibility for sexual abuse in the Church lies with the Church". The church must accept that, stressed Hess. He sees it as his task as bishop that the investigation of the abuse continues - and that the church "becomes a safer place for all people".
The study for Mecklenburg was initiated in 2019 after other studies had revealed an above-average number of people affected in the region. The Archdiocese of Hamburg, to which the Catholics in Mecklenburg belong, commissioned the Clinic for Forensic Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at the University Clinic in Ulm. The study was published in Schwerin on Friday and handed over to Hesse.
19 clerics are considered accused or convicted perpetrators. The study organizers were in contact with 40 of those affected, and the scientists conducted interviews with 13 of them. Respondents reported hitting and touching the genitals, kissing, stripping naked, and sleeping in bed together. The abuse dragged on for years – according to the study, it was more than five years on average. That was longer than was revealed in West Germany. More boys than girls were among those affected. In most cases, the abuse began around the age of ten, but one victim was still preschool when the abuse began.
While the church was not interested in enlightenment because that would have further worsened the situation for the institution, the GDR leadership, according to the study, had little motivation to take a closer look. The GDR should be a largely crime-free area. According to the scientists, both institutions were actually obliged to pursue the abuse.
In a first statement on Friday, Hesse spoke of "how terrible and shocking" it was to hear about such experiences "that people suffered as very young children and often over a very long period of time -" through priests to whom they were entrusted were". On Monday he said the study would become "part of our church's guilt." He added: "And I think that's good and right."
As a diocese, one must take note of the fact that “as far as we know today, those responsible in the church have not acted appropriately. The perpetrators were not consistently held accountable and those under protection were not adequately protected.” The Archbishop emphasized that one must assume that certain crime patterns worked out in the study still exist.
As an example, Hesse named the so-called grooming. In the examples from the GDR, the priests mainly approached children from families who were in a difficult social situation. By donating food, helping with homework and the like, they would have made themselves “indispensable”, as the study says. "We have to assume that such initiation behavior still exists today," said Hesse. Therefore prevention is very important.
Hesse failed to apologize to those affected in his statement. "Many affected people are now expressing their displeasure at church gestures of apology," he said. He can understand that. "It would be far too little just to ask for an apology. From my point of view, it is more about drawing the right conclusions and doing everything possible so that nobody in the church has to have such experiences.”
According to the Archbishop, the further studies that have been announced should not be seen as the end of the road either. They are part of the processing. Another building block, in addition to the studies and prevention, is breaking up the silence of those who know, described in the Mecklenburg study as bystander behavior. Anyone who has a bad feeling should express it and thus make it clear to those affected that they are believed.
For him it is still "almost scandalous," says Hesse, "that according to the statistics, children and young people need seven contacts before they find another person who believes what they describe." The number must clearly go down. That would be a sign of systemic change, and the mission is to achieve it.
The archbishop was not yet able to give details or a timetable for the other studies announced on Monday. Possible investigation orders would be coordinated with the affected council and the processing commission.
The diocese established the two bodies for the first time and together with the diocese of Osnabrück and Hildesheim. Before the Diocese of Hamburg was established in 1995, parts belonged to Osnabrück (Hamburg north of the Elbe, as well as Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg) and Hildesheim (Harburg and Wilhelmsburg).
A project is currently running in Osnabrück to deal with cases of abuse. Last autumn, the commissioned scientists presented a first interim report. He describes the actions of 16 accused clerics and lists breaches of duty from their superiors to the bishops. The final report is due to be published next year.
Stefan Hess also knows what it's like to have such a report attributed to failures in the office. In connection with his previous position as personnel manager of the Archdiocese of Cologne, Hesse was also personally accused of errors in investigating abuse there. In a report commissioned by Archbishop Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, eleven breaches of duty in the processing of child sexual abuse were mentioned in 2021. It was about violations of the reporting and clarification obligations. Hesse then offered his resignation, but Pope Francis left him in office.