Clerical abuse poses ‘systemic questions’ of church, says Munich cardinal

Survivors express optimism that senior German cleric grasps scale of issue

German cardinal Reinhard Marx has conceded that confronting the legacy of clerical sexual abuse and its cover-up in the Catholic Church can only happen when “systemic questions” are asked of the institution and its hierarchy.

Two months ago a report commissioned by Cardinal Marx, as archbishop of Munich and Freising, documented nearly 500 cases of clerical sexual abuse of children and youths and at least 235 perpetrators in the archdiocese in the postwar decades – with the true number likely to be much higher.

“Through this discussion, the entire system is in question, from its foundations up,” said the cardinal at a public event in Munich with abuse survivors on Monday evening.

In 2010 he commissioned – but did not publish – a first report into clerical abuse in his diocese, a bulwark of German Catholicism. Now, 12 years on, he said he sees the issue “even more radically” and said he finally understood “that we need to dig deeper”.

“We have to look deeper, that we are all linked to each other in this system,” he added.

January’s report has triggered a veritable earthquake in Munich, with at least 7,000 people applying to leave the Catholic Church.

Survivors attending Monday evening’s event in Munich said they were optimistic that – some 12 years after the first wave of clerical sexual abuse revelations in Germany – one of Germany’s most senior Catholic clerics has finally grasped the scale of the issue.

Progress

Reinhard Kick, who was abused by a priest and is now a survivor representative in the archdiocese, said he was “cautiously optimistic” that survivors are finally making progress.

“I wrote Marx letters for 10 years, begging letters, asking for help, and got nothing,” said Mr Kick. “On Monday I told him, ‘now I am here to help you.’”

The Munich archdiocese has promised to adopt a proactive approach towards abuse survivors, rather than waiting to be approached. Officials have agreed to address outstanding financial concerns on compensation and on unpaid therapy costs. From June, the church in Munich will have a dedicated priest and support team for survivors and their concerns as well as a programme to assist priests who were themselves abused.

But Cardinal Marx has yet to address a key accusation in the Munich abuse report: that Emeritus Pope Benedict, in his four years as archbishop of Munich until 1982, was aware of abusing priests in his archdiocese.

In a statement last month, the 94-year-old expressed his “profound shame” at abuses that occurred while he held senior positions within the church. Responding to four cases flagged by investigators, the former pope said he had no knowledge of them and thus no responsibility. He also denied attending a meeting where one abusing priest was discussed, which he later corrected as an error.

Archbishop Georg Gänswein, his personal secretary, has now admitted this was a “grievous oversight”.

“But it is going too far to accuse him of lying; that hit him hard,” he told Die Zeit weekly, insisting the meeting did not go into details of the priest’s record. “Not one of the claims stood up to a careful examination of files; they don’t get any more true through repetition.”

‘Suggestive’

Instead Archbishop Gänswein accused the team of lawyers of posing “suggestive” questions, that “didn’t always differentiate between assumption, claim and fact”, resulting in “tendentious reporting” of the affair. His lawyers have accused the Munich investigators of relying on “rumour and second-hand gossip” to support allegations.

Cardinal Marx has yet to say in public whether he believes the former pope, but has said he has “no reason to doubt” the work of the lawyers he commissioned, or their findings.

In recent months the Munich cardinal has emerged as an influential, progressive voice in an ongoing reform debate inside the German Catholic Church. In mid-March he celebrated a Mass with members of Munich’s leading LGBT community and criticised ongoing discrimination against same-sex couples within the church.

“All human relationships must be marked by the primacy of love, then they can be accepted by God,” he said. Acknowledging Catholic teaching, which views homosexual behaviour as “intrinsically disordered”, he added: “As a bishop I cannot call into question the primacy of love.”