Sunday, January 31, 2010

Et tu, Berlin?

Don’t know whether this news item from Berlin has crossed your radar. Hitting the papers the past couple of days across Germany are reports of a scandal at the elite Canisius Gymnasium (Canisius-Kolleg), one of Germany’s ruling class private catholic high schools, alma mater of many of Germany’s movers and shakers. Seven students have come forward with charges that they were sexually abused in the 1970s. And – why am I not surprised – that they reported this in a letter to authorities in 1981 to no effect.

This is 2010, though, and this time the current rector, Father Klaus Mertes sent out 500 letters to former students urging anybody with anything to add to come forward. Since then fifteen additional students have confirmed they, too, were victims of sexual abuse by the same two priests.

Apparently only two priests are involved. Both have long since retired. Peter R. vehemently denies the charges. He still lives in Berlin but reportedly travels regularly to South America. Wolfgang S., the other accused (who lives in Chile, by the way), has fessed up. But things are stirring and word is apparently coming from Essen and Baden-Württemburg and Hamburg of similar cases.

The Berlin District Attorney’s office is trying to figure out whether anything can be done legally to prosecute these two men. Sex crimes have a statute of limitations of ten years after the victims turn eighteen. They are now 40, so the priests would likely go free, even if they could be found guilty.

Most interesting to me is the fact that Mertes is pointing a finger at the church, charging it with keeping homosexuality in the closet and giving no guidance to priests with homosexual feelings. He has lashed out at sex education policies in general and complained of a too authoritarian relationship between teachers and students. Lost in all this, of course, is the way it fuels the old canard about a tie-in between homosexuality and child abuse. We overlook the need to separate out the homosexually inclined priests with no way to handle their sexuality other than through abusing children from the larger issues of celibacy and sexual desire generally. Canisius Kolleg was a boys school at the time, remember, and child abuse is a crime of opportunity.

That aside, and since this particular incident does apparently involve homosexual sex, we are left to wonder whether Mertes' approach to the problem is a reflection of Germany’s more open attitudes toward homosexuality and sex in general, or whether openness is the only approach anybody can take these days after the example of the 15,000 abused children in Ireland and the more than 4000 priests found guilty of sex abuse in the United States.

Mertes is not yet entirely free from suspicion of complicity with the institution. It turns out he learned of abuses in 2004 and 2005. But, he maintains, he kept silent because the victims wanted him to, not because he was hushing anything up to protect the reputation of the church and the school.

The story is still breaking. How big a scandal it becomes remains to be seen.

The scandal of child abuse in the Catholic Church raged in the United States some eight or ten years ago already. Over time people came to realize the abuse of children was not the worst part of the story. Any large organization has rotten apples, after all, although four thousand priests and untold thousands of victims and counting in the U.S. alone suggests it’s not just the apples that are rotten. But to my way of thinking, the by far greater evil was the gut reaction on the part of the official church to throw the kids to the wolves, transfer the priests to other parishes where they could repeat their crimes against other kids, and put its energies into hiding the facts.

It is inevitable that people will compare what goes on in Germany with what went on in the several English-speaking countries. First, we will have to sort out whether the German kids suffered the same kind of long-term damage. Many students who admitted to abuse turned around and sent their own kids, I understand, to the same school. Outside Germany, this curious fact will no doubt lead to some snarking about Germans and their dedication to authority, but I think it is also explained on a more common sense level. Why throw out a good education because of a very rare rotten apple. If I were a parent faced with getting a good education for my kids, I might do the same. And I suspect they did what I would do and watch very carefully for any sign of hanky-panky.

While speculating on German love of authority, we might also speculate, in other words, that this decision could also mean parents were confident their relationship with their kids was sufficiently strong and their attitudes about sex sufficiently enlightened that any predator priest would be identified before damage was done. Many kids, remember, find the horny uncle just another adult jerk and think nothing of it once it's over with. Others internalize the shame and suffer their whole life long. Without the shame, it's just another bullying incident.

Tell that to the church. Remove the shame, and where's the control?

And here we go again, picking up the pieces.

Poor Papa Ratzi. It was bad enough when those unruly sex-crazed Americans messed up. This time it’s the Jesuits (Canisius-Kolleg is a Jesuit school) with their headquarters in Munich. That’s almost Ratzinger’s home town.


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