FaithWorld

Can we expect Freudian slips when Benedict meets Irish bishops?

February 13, 2010
spiegel cover

This week's cover of the German newsweekly Der Spiegel -- the title says "The sanctimonious ones -- the Catholic Church and sex"

If there ever were a time for Pope Benedict to commit a Freudian slip that we could all understand, it would be in his meetings next week with Irish bishops to discuss the clerical sex abuse scandals that have shaken the Emerald Isle.

It’s not hard to imagine him meeting the Hibernian hierarchy behind closed Vatican doors and occasionally referring to the scandals “in Germany” rather than “in Ireland.” If he does, the Irish bishops will certainly forgive him. Enough has been happening in his fatherland recently to distract him from the uproar about the recent reports of clergy excesses in Ireland.

The controversy caused by two official Irish reports — the Ryan report on abuse in Catholic institutions country-wide and the Murphy report on the Dublin archdiocese — prompted the German pope to take the unusual step of calling the Irish bishops to Rome to discuss the ensuing crisis. He is due to issue a letter to Irish Catholics next Wednesday, after his consultations with the bishops. All this is quite exceptional for the Vatican, which usually does not get too involved in such cases in national churches. But it was arranged a few weeks ago when the problem seemed to be confined to the Irish Church

Since then, reports of hushed-up clerical abuse have been mounting in Benedict’s native Germany.  These reports are all the more shocking because (1) few cases of clerical abuse have emerged in Germany and (2) the abuse allegedly occurred at elite Jesuit high schools in Berlin, Hamburg, Bonn and other cities. These boarding schools have excellent reputations in Germany, as do many Jesuit schools around the world, and charges like this disgrace a long and proud tradition of classical education that’s hard to find elsewhere these days.

Ouch… this cuts a bit close to home. One of my own sons boarded at one of these schools for a month when we lived in Germany  — the goal was to improve his German language skills — and he returned with much improved Deutsch and an appreciation of Jesuit education. But he also came home with disturbing rumours of wayward priests.

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Pope Benedict at the Romano Maggiore seminary in Rome February 12, 2010/Alessia Pierdomenico

There was widespread talk in Bonn back then — at least 15 years ago — about priests taking boys to nudist (Freikörperkultur) swimming pools. Neither we nor our friends who sent their boys to the school had any proof of misconduct, and our sons had no real complaints, but then again, we were not prosecutors investigating every single rumour either. Nor were the Jesuits, it seems, even though they were the ones we parents trusted our boys to …

This shamefully hidden past has come back to haunt German Catholicism in the same way that it has shaken the Catholic Church in the United States, Ireland, Poland and other countries. The irony is that in Germany, this has not hit the diocesan priests, often the usual suspects, but the priestly order that is supposed to be the intellectual elite of the Roman Catholic Church. Jesuit schools have such good reputations around the world that even Muslims, Jews and atheists — and I know cases of this personally in several countries — send their children to them to get the best education available in their cities. All parents I know who confided their children to Jesuit schools signed on to their intellectual rigour and most of them approved of the spiritual depth –  but few knew about and none would have approved of such carnal exploitation. For most of us parents, this side of these schools came out only afterwards, in rumours and gossip that could not be verified but put a disturbing cloud of doubt over an otherwise positive experience.

A courageous Jesuit in Germany, Fr. Klaus Mertes S.J., has brought all this out into the open and started the purification process that these schools needed. Mertes is the head of the Jesuit high school in Berlin, the prestigious Canisius-Kolleg. He informed the Jesuit order back in 2006 of the charges against fellow teachers but — in a bureaucratic reaction we’ve seen all too often in many other countries — his superiors took their sweet time in responding. He admitted that part of the delay in answering these charges was probably based on what he called “the myth”  surrounding the elite school under attack. It took too much time for him and them to crack through that myth, but at least Mertes did it. May he continue his good work.

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St. Aloysius College, Bonn-Bad Godesberg, 23 Aug 2007

The scandal in Germany finally became public last month when the head of the Jesuits there, Fr. Stefan Dartmann S.J., announced that he knew of 25 former pupils who said they had been abused at Jesuit schools between 1975 and 1984 — 20 at the  Canisius Kolleg in Berlin, 3 at the  Hamburger St. Ansgar Schule in Hamburg and 2 at the Kolleg St. Blasien in St. Blasien in the Black Forest.

Last week, the principal of the Jesuit boarding school in Bonn, the former capital of West Germany, resigned after two former pupils came forward claiming to have been abused at his school. One of them, Miguel Abrantes Ostrowski, now 37, wrote a book in 2007 about the abuse he allegedly suffered, entitled Sacro Pop: A Schoolboy’s Report. Fr. Theo Schneider S.J. is the first Jesuit to step down since the crisis hit the headlines in late January. He said he did it to allow the investigations to go ahead without any hindrances.

If this issue wasn’t already on the agenda for the German bishops’ regular meeting on Feb 22-25, it certainly is now.

Senior German Jesuits and other Catholic leaders have apologised for these cases, and that’s a good first step. But the Berlin state prosecutor’s office has said that, under the relevant statute of limitations, there would be no prosecutions of the sexual abuse charges at Canisius College. That’s all the more reason for the German Jesuits — and the German bishops as a group — to draw the moral lessons from these cases themselves and deal strictly with those who misused the trust of their pupils (and their parents) so crassly. Forgiveness is a virtue, but so is justice. A church that can’t see that risks losing even those members who believe that their faith, despite all scandals they see, ultimately stands for the good in a sinful world.

What do you think? Can German Catholics turn out to be better than their co-religionists in the U.S., Ireland and other countries in admitting guilt and starting to set things right?

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What happend in Berlin and elsewhere 30 years ago is a disgrace. Especially since the Jesuits then were unable or unwilling to handle the problem with efficiency and professionalism.
What is different now, it seems to me, that the younger generation of Jesuits is determined not to repeat that mistake. I am impressed with their effort to bring light into the darkest corners of their collective past. If I have seen anything new in the Catholic Church in recent years, then it is this kind of unconditional openness and admission of guilt. In a strange twist of history, the German Jesuits could in their darkest hour since WWII, help their church to finally arrive in the 21st century.

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