Catholic priests in Germany molested 'thousands of children'

  1. Sexual abuse of minors by clergymen between 1946 and 2014 was subject of a scientific study commissioned by the German Bishops' Conference
  2. The bishops recognized their failure and announced to take action on the basis of the studies' recommendations
  3. The high number of cases points towards peculiar characteristics of the church as special risk factors for child abuse
  4. The issue is virulent: there were new first offenders up to the present, the study revealed
  5. The figures reflect only part of the truth, because an unknown number of sources like personnel records had been destroyed or manipulated in earlier years
  6. Researcher were not allowed to access the archives of the dioceses
  7. A broad treatment, independent from the church, is still needed, critics complained

At least 1,670 Roman Catholic clergymen in Germany were charged with sexually assaulting over 3,600 children between 1946 and 2014, according to a leaked report commissioned by the DBK – German Bishops’ Conference (Spiegel Online). The report and an English summary are freely accessible on the DBK website. The revelations add to an expanding global compendium of sexual abuse scandals in one of the world’s oldest religious organizations.

A spokesman for the Church said it was “dismayed and ashamed” by the findings in the report.

The Plenary Assembly of the DBK stated that as bishops, the “shocking results” shows them the responsibility to intensify their activities, and the duty to grant those affected justice (DBK statement). It realized that there was an institutional failure and committed itself to implement several actions out of the studies recommendations within a short period of time. Other recommendations “require longer clarification processes”.

The Independent Inquiry into Sexual Child Abuse in Germany (UKASK), that was established following a resolution of the German parliament, qualified the statement as “vague” and confronted the DBK with a number of open issues. The statement, the UKASK said, didn’t reflect the scale of the child abuse and of the concealing within the church. (UKASK 2018)

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The research project (“MHG project”)

The project with the title “Sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests, deacons and male members of orders in the domain of the German Bishops’ Conference”, called “MHG project”, started in July 2014, four years after the scandal had reached the attention of the general public. It was managed and financed by the Association of German Dioceses (VDD), the legal entity of the DBK. The study was conducted by a consortium of three German universities.

Its’ objectives were the quantitative estimation of abuse, the description and analysis of the characteristics of the offences as well as of the groups of victims and perpetrators. Furthermore the study was to identify and analyze structures within the Catholic church which might foster the emergence of the offences.

Other than the Pennsylvania Diocese Victims Report (August 2018), that covers child sex abuse individually in six dioceses, the MHG report does not provide information about individual dioceses or institutions, but only about the 27 dioceses as a whole. The same is true for the names of offenders (Penn. 2018, report).

The fact that the project was managed and financed by an institution that also is the object of the research was remarked by the DIE ZEIT and strongly criticised by victims associations (e. g. Katsch 2018). It was also adressed by respondants of an online survey of persons affected, carried out within the framework of the MHG study. The respondants considered a real treatment of the abuses only possible under the condition that the study is led by an independent body (report p. 335).

In this context it deserves to be mentioned that exploration and treatment initiatives of other bodies had been conducted with the participation the DBK, too.

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German Bishops’ Conference participating in third-party exploration projects

While child sexual abuse has been a topic discussed among experts since the 1980s, it was only in 2010 that the issue reached the attention of the general public after victims of abuse in Catholic institutions broke their silence and put an end to the taboo that the issue had been subject to (Neutzling 2010, UBKSM 2011).

The German Government reacted. It launched two Round Tables for the exploration, treatment and prevention of institutional sexual child abuse (RTH 2012, RTKM 2012). The Catholic church participated as well as formerly institutionalised children. All members of the Round Tables had equal rights, as far as possible decisions had to be made on the principle of consensus (RTH 2010zw).

2011, the VDD signed a research contract with the Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony (KFN) for a study of the sexual abuse committed by Catholic clergymen (KFN 2018, Pfeiffer 2014). Eighteen months later, the VDD claimed an amendment of the contract demanding that all proprietary rights of use and exploitation rights with regard to data and reports had to lie with the VDD; that by the end of the project the KFN had to hand out all data resources to the VDD; that the VDD shall receive influence on the project reports. The KFN did not consent into these new conditions that were contrary to the principles of academic freedom. The VDD cancelled the contract giving the reason that the relationship of trust between the partners was destroyed. After that, the KFN continued part of the project by it’s own means and the VDD decided to conduct the research project together with a consortium. The result is the MHG study.

Until then, treatment projects had been carried out by some single institutions, but a broader, independent treatment was still missing, according to a report of the Independent Commissioner’s for Child Sexual Abuse Issues (UBSKM), the Office of the Federal Government for the concerns of victims and survivors (UBSKM 2013).

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Risks and structural characteristics specific to the Catholic Church

The outcome of the MHG study is not limited to quantitative estimates. Beyond that, it discovers risks that are arising from structural characteristics of the Catholic church. Those findings are included in the final recommendations (report summary).

They deserve special attention because “the risk of children being sexually abused within the structures of the Catholic Church is not a phenomenon that has come to an end”, the report states, adding “this calls for special context‑related interventions”. The file analysis gave evidence, showing that 2,5 percent of the 1,670 accused persons had been accused for the first time between 2011 and 2014.

Thus, 62,8 percent of the more than 3,600 sexually abused children were male. The large proportion of affected male persons contrasts with the child abuse in institutions outside the church. Bearing in mind that there are several underlying causes, the study recommends especially to discuss the ambivalent statements and attitudes regarding Catholic sexual morals towards homosexuality and the importance of celibacy.

As may be seen from the personnal and criminal records that had been reviewed, 1,429 of the accused clergymen were diocesan priests. At the same time they hold with 5,1 percent the highest proportion of all the diocesan priests with records. Since the celibate way of life as well as the great power they possess in the hierarchy are characteristics peculiar to diocesan priests, the study suggests to consider these issues as potential risk factors for child abuse.

The DBK however had already mentioned in a press release that experts had confirmed that the sexual abuse is not related to the celibate (DBK 2010).

51,6 percent of the affected children were not older than thirteen years when they had been abused for the first time. The fact that in case of 28,3 percent of the accused priests there exist informations regarding children of such a young age might be an evidence of a paedophilic tendency. The report relates paedophilic preference disorders to the development of the personality by executing specific tasks and by the structural conditions (report p. 128).

Further statistical evidence concerns homosexual inclination, psychosocial predispositions and risk behaviours of accused persons.

In reaction to the study, the DBK promised that challenges such as “the questions of the celibate way of life of priests and various aspects of Catholic sexual morality, will be discussed in a transparent process of dialogue with experts from various disciplines” (DBK statement).

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Researchers got no direct access to archives, part of files had been destroyed

The figures that the report presents reflect only part of the truth. They are based on reviews of 38,156 personnel resp. reference files from the dioceses.

One of the problem is that, according to the report, an unknown number of files or parts of them which reveal information concerning sexual abuse had been destroyed or manipulated in earlier years (report summary).

The above mentioned KFN had come across the same problem. It came to know that a number of dioceses had destroyed those files, with reference to the canon law (Can 489 § 2 CiC). In 2012, it asked each of the 27 dioceses to provide information that would allow to estimate the extent of the data gap and the consequences for the informative value of the file analysis. None of the dioceses answered (KFN 2013, Pfeiffer 2014).

Another problem was that the researchers were not given access to the archives although Stephan Ackermann, DBK spokesman on child abuse issues, had promised that the bishops would make accessible all the files incl. those stored in the so called secret archives ( Instead, employees of the dioceses examined the files along with questionnaires developed by the researchers.

Still another shortcoming of the records is that generally the records don’t adequately provide notes about infringements of law, as revealed by the first of the German government Round Tables (RTH 2010).

Those problems were not addressed in the list of actions the DBK announced in it’s statement.

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What are other recent sex abuse scandals within the Church?

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What is the Vatican doing about it?

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Have there been any repercussions for the Church?

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How are sexual abuse survivors coping?

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