German bishops launch second attempt at abuse inquiry

Inquiry last year collapsed amid allegations of church interference

Bishop Stephan Ackermann, appointed by his peers as official abuse commissioner, said the investigation would explore the prevalence of sexual and physical abuse committed by clergy towards young people. Photograph: Torsten Silz/AFP/Getty Images

Bishop Stephan Ackermann, appointed by his peers as official abuse commissioner, said the investigation would explore the prevalence of sexual and physical abuse committed by clergy towards young people. Photograph: Torsten Silz/AFP/Getty Images

Wed, Mar 26, 2014, 01:00


German bishops have launched a second attempt to investigate clerical sex abuse allegations after the original effort collapsed last year.

Researchers walked away from the project in January 2013, alleging the Catholic Church was trying to influence their research and censor their findings – claims the church denied.

Four new research institutes have come on board the project to investigate what Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier, appointed by his peers as official abuse commissioner, called “this dark side of our church”.

Bishop Ackermann said the research effort, set to take more than three years with a budget of €1 million, would explore the prevalence of sexual and physical abuse committed by clergy towards young people.

“This is for the sake of the victims but also in order to see the mistakes for ourselves,” said Bishop Ackermann. “We must do everything we can to ensure this is not repeated.”


Widespread abuse
Germany was first hit by public allegations of widespread clerical abuse early in 2010. The principal of a leading Jesuit school in Berlin went public with complaints from former pupils that, during their time in the school, they experienced sexual and physical abuse at the hands of priest teachers. The allegations multiplied and, in July 2011, bishops vowed to open their archive to outside researchers.

After a promising start the first investigation collapsed in January 2013 when bishops demanded retrospective changes to the signed research agreement, potentially allowing them to veto findings.

The researchers refused, saying it infringed the principle of independent research. They were already unhappy, saying not all bishops were ready to open their archives; others, they said, had already destroyed older abuse files.

Bishops said this was not a cover-up but part of church policy to destroy files after a decade. Researchers suggested this called into question the publicised goal of investigating abuse allegations back to 1945.

Forensic psychiatrist Harald Dreßing, the new investigation head, said he was confident his attempt would be more successful than the last.

“We are independent and will carry out the project along strict academic lines,” he said.

Victims of clerical abuse will advise the group at all stages, he said, from devising its investigative method to interpretation of findings.

Just nine dioceses have agreed to open their archives back to 1945, while 18 others have approved access to 2000. Even with these limitations, Dr Dreßing said his team had enough access to extrapolate reliable findings.