Keep the faith

Lim­its of Catholic abuse study de­bated

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE - David.matthews@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

It look four years and a trawl of more than 38,000 doc­u­ments dat­ing back to 1946. And the re­sults of a huge re­search project into sex­ual abuse of mi­nors by clergy in the Ger­man Catholic church, con­ducted by a con­sor­tium of psy­chi­a­trists and crim­i­nol­o­gists from four uni­ver­si­ties and re­search in­sti­tutes, were truly shock­ing.

Close to one in 20 clergy be­tween 1946 and 2014 was sus­pected to have com­mit­ted sex­ual abuse, with the re­searchers find­ing ev­i­dence of 1,670 po­ten­tial abusers and nearly 4,000 vic­tims. The find­ings have led to out­pour­ings of con­tri­tion from the bish­ops who com­mis­sioned the study, and rekin­dled the de­bate on celibacy within the Catholic church.

Yet the re­sults have also trig­gered a par­al­lel de­bate in Ger­many about how the study should have been con­ducted in the first place. For some crit­ics, the church took too much con­trol of the process, leav­ing many ques­tions about the scale of abuse and the re­spon­si­bil­ity of in­di­vid­ual bish­ops unan­swered.

The re­sults have only re­vealed “the tip of the ice­berg” in terms of abuse, ac­knowl­edged Hans-Joachim Sal­ize, part of the con­sor­tium of re­searchers and pro­fes­sor of psy­chi­atric epi­demi­ol­ogy at the Cen­tral In­sti­tute of Men­tal Health, in Mannheim.

In order to comb through the ca­reer records of clergy for signs of abuse – com­plaints from par­ents, or un­ex­plained ac­tions, for ex­am­ple – the re­searchers had to re­cruit teams of four to five peo­ple for each of Ger­many’s 27 dio­ce­ses. If they found “hints” of sex­ual abuse, they fed these find­ings back to the re­searchers via anony­mous ques­tion­naires.

Con­tro­ver­sially, these teams were made up of em­ploy­ees of the dio­ce­ses them­selves, headed by a judge or some­one with a le­gal back­ground.

“This is a source of bias, of course,” said Pro­fes­sor Sal­ize. “There were dio­ce­ses that were eager to find out what had hap­pened, and there were some dio­ce­ses that were more re­luc­tant.”

Oth­ers have been more blunt. Us­ing church em­ploy­ees to scour their own records is a “joke”, said Chris­tian Pfeif­fer, a prom­i­nent crim- in­ol­o­gist and Sax­ony’s for­mer jus­tice min­is­ter, be­cause it al­lows the ac­cused “to pro­duce the data”.

Pro­fes­sor Pfeif­fer has been out­spo­ken in the Ger­man me­dia about the con­straints im­posed by the church on the study. How­ever, he was at pains to stress that he was not crit­i­cis­ing the re­searchers in­volved, and thought that the project was still worth pro­ceed­ing with de­spite the lim­i­ta­tions.

He was orig­i­nally in talks to lead the in­quiry, which he said would have em­ployed its own record-check­ers, but pulled out af­ter he al­leged that the church had tried to en­sure that it would be able to im­pose “cen­sor­ship” on any fi­nal re­port. He also com­plained that the fi­nal study only

re­ports data at a na­tional level, mak­ing it im­pos­si­ble to iden­tify bish­ops who failed to pun­ish abu­sive priests or com­pen­sate vic­tims.

“We do not cover up these lim­i­ta­tions,” said Har­ald Dress­ing, the con­sor­tium leader, and a foren­sic psy­chi­a­trist, also based at the Cen­tral In­sti­tute of Men­tal Health. “This is one of the first sen­tences in our re­port. Is a glass of wa­ter half full, or half empty?”

The study’s aim was never – by it­self – to bring in­di­vid­ual clergy to jus­tice. “The re­search project did not pur­sue a le­gal or crim­i­nal­is­tic ap­proach, but a ret­ro­spec­tive-de­scrip­tive and epi­demi­o­log­i­cal one,” it says.

Also com­pli­cat­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion were strict Ger­man le­gal pro­tec­tions of the data of the “95 per cent” of priests who are in­no­cent, Pro­fes­sor Dress­ing said.

The church could eas­ily have blocked even this anony­mous in­ves­ti­ga­tion un­der data pro­tec­tion laws, but it was forced to buckle un­der pub­lic pres­sure, he said.

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