Whistleblower priest fears schism in church
THE EVENINGS are when Jesuit Klaus Mertes has time to reflect, padding along the creaking wooden corridors that smell of wax floor polish, writes DEREK SCALLYIn Berlin
Two months ago after sparking Germany’s clerical abuse scandal, the headmaster of Berlin’s prestigious Canisius College worries of a “deep schism” if Catholic leaders cannot deliver change.
The heavy-set grey stone building facing Berlin’s Tiergarten park was once the headquarters of the Krupp company in the Third Reich capital.
Today it is Canisius College, since February one of Germany’s most notorious schools.
“I really didn’t think it was going to become such a big thing,” says Fr Mertes of the letter he penned last January to 600 alumni, after an internal report exposed decades of pupil abuse by teaching priests.
In the pitch-perfect letter he apologised for the abuse and asked anyone who was abused during their time at the school to make contact.
In February a Berlin newspaper reprinted the letter and, out of nowhere, two tidal waves hit at the college at once: dozens of abuse victims and the world’s media.
“I thought my letter might cause a few waves in the Berlin media at best and then subside,” says Fr Mertes, a frank, friendly 55-year-old in a casual shirt and trousers that are a long way from the classic Jesuit soutane.
Things turned out very differently: after Canisius, abuse allegations surfaced at other Catholic schools around Germany. Within two weeks, decades-old abuse cases surfaced at non-denominational progressive schools. Last week, abuse victims of East German orphanages came forward.
Germany’s Catholic bishops have apologised for the abuse and decades of cover-up, set up a telephone hotline and are revising abuse guidelines.
The media, smelling scandal, have pored over Pope Benedict’s record as archbishop of Munich and tried to link him to abuse cases there in the 1980s.
The man who unwittingly sparked the drama says it still weighs heavily on him, physically and spiritually.
“I have to remind myself that my primary responsibility is to current and former pupils. I’m not an abuse expert and I don’t have a responsibility to solve all the church’s problems,” he said.
Sitting in his office, Fr Mertes recalls his final year of training in Coleraine in 1993. Bishop Eamon Casey’s secret life had just been revealed but the clerical abuse scandal had yet to hit with full force. Since then, he has watched the Irish drama unfold from afar. And as the number of German clerical abuse cases nears 300, he says the abuse scandal here has evoked similar feelings of anger and revulsion among ordinary Catholics.
There was a familiar Irish ring to the initial reaction among some German bishops, too – shoot-the-messenger denial – though, since then, church leaders say they are anxious to learn from Irish mistakes.
“The real enemy in this situation is the silence, not the media who broke the silence,” says Fr Mertes. “We in the church are not victims of the media, we are responsible for a silence that was a continuation of the abuse.” Silence is one common denominator in the Irish and German clerical abuse scandals that, otherwise, are very different.
The German Catholic church is home to just half of the country’s 50 million Christians and does not occupy the same monopoly position on education and moral matters it once held in Ireland.
The Irish clergy’s abuse of trust and power is thus less relevant here, allowing the German debate move quickly on to a broader discussion about child abuse in society. Fr Mertes is critical of those in Germany who continue to single out the church for special attention.
“There are an endless number of hangers-on, people who are using this opportunity to say what they always thought about the church,” remarks Fr Mertes. “But they are not interested in the victims.”
Parallel to the broad abuse discussion, the clerical abuse revelations have exposed underlying tensions between conservatives and liberal-progressives in Germany’s Catholic church. It’s a tension that goes back to the implementation of the second Vatican Council and the long-term effects of 1968 student revolution: should the church change to reflect the society in which it exists or should it act as a critical counterbalance? For Fr Mertes, the scandal has reminded “some 95 per cent of good German Catholics” that they have no voice in a church dominated by a conservative Vatican.
“Rome orients itself theologically to a reactionary minority and is losing contact to the needs of the majority of Catholics living in the daily reality of a secularised society,” he says. “But the abuse discussion has, for many people here, made it legitimate at last to ask for a public discussion about sexuality issues without having to position oneself in public.”
Fr Mertes sees in the current scandal the chance to spark a “fundamental shift in church thinking” beyond current liberal-conservative struggle.
“It has the potential to bring about a shift within the church from the current position of institutional solidarity to solidarity with the poor and victims,” he says, citing as an example Pope Benedict’s meeting with US abuse victims.
But for real change, the man who triggered Germany’s clerical abuse scandal says the church needs a complaint structure that goes beyond the “old, denunciation-prone system”.
Finally, it must make a “humble admission of church speechlessness on sexual teaching”.