Saturday, February 6, 2010

Germany reels at abuse in top Jesuit school

Germany reels at abuse in top Jesuit school

The now familiar narrative of systematic abuse of children by priests has scandalised Germans, but campaigners fear the church’s perceived lack of will to change will deny victims justice, writes DEREK SCALLY in Berlin

IT IS 23 YEARS since Adam threw himself in front of a train. His family never knew why. Nor did they know until this week that, months before his death, the 24-year-old had tracked down Fr Peter, a former teacher who had abused him at Berlin’s elite Canisius College.

Adam found the Jesuit priest in the western city of Hildesheim in 1986, confronted him with a knife and stabbed him several times in the chest before fleeing. The priest was seriously injured and was rushed to hospital for treatment, but never pressed charges.

“It seems like others knew earlier what went on in Canisius College, but only now does it seem to concern us,” said Adam’s mother this week to German television. “Abuse seems to be everywhere.”

After years of watching Ireland’s unfolding clerical abuse drama, Germany now has its own home-grown scandal. What started at Berlin’s top Catholic school has, within a week, exploded into a familiar, depressing narrative. Physical violence against children; the sickening abuse of trust by priests; and the cowardly decision to move the abusers on to new pastures and new victims rather than dealing with the problem.

Germany’s Catholic church has not been immune to abuse allegations over the years but, until now, abusing priests were portrayed as isolated black sheep.

But that has changed with revelations of systematic abuse at Canisius College, founded in 1925 and still one of Berlin’s most exclusive schools.

Last month the principal, Fr Klaus Mertes, wrote, in an open letter to former pupils, of his shock and shame at the abuse allegations he had heard after being approached by former pupils. Worse, he said, was how an internal investigation revealed its systematic nature, encouraged by the school’s “culture of looking the other way”.

The Canisius allegations concern three Jesuit priests now in their 60s, all of whom are no longer in the order.

The first, Fr Wolfgang Stab, taught German, religion and physical education at the Berlin school from 1975 to 1979, and later at schools in Hamburg and in the Black Forest. Today, former pupils at all three schools tell of “excessive physical punishment rituals”.

“If we got bad grades, we were forced to lie naked across his lap for a spanking,” said one former student.

The priest moved to Chile in 1985 and left the order in 1992. He has admitted abuse and, last week, asked his victims for forgiveness.

More serious claims surround Fr Peter Riedel – the priest stabbed by a former pupil – who taught at Canisius College from 1971 to 1981.

“He would ask us if we had thought about girls and, if we admitted masturbating, had to show him how. We had to let ourselves be touched,” recalled another victim.

Fr Peter continued to work as a priest after leaving the Jesuits in 1995. In every posting – in Göttingen, Hanover and even Mexico – he faced allegations of sexual abuse of young girls. Letters of complaint were found this week in his file – unanswered.

Colleagues who asked why the priest was moved around so frequently were told a vague story about “financial irregularities” in his previous parish. Fr Peter lives in an upmarket neighbourhood of Berlin and denies all charges.

A third abusing priest who worked as a religion teacher in Canisius College in 1970-71 has since been identified as Bernhard Ehlert, head of a leading Catholic Third World charity. He resigned on Wednesday after he admitted abusing boys early in his career at the school.

Cardinal Georg Sterzinski, archbishop of Berlin, has weighed into the scandal, calling an emergency meeting on Tuesday of all Catholic school heads in the archdiocese. Already Fr Mertes of Canisius College is convinced he has gone public with just “the tip of the iceberg”.

“What has become visible with us happened at other schools,” he told Berlin’s Tagesspiegel newspaper. “But it is a disaster for the Jesuits because the heart of our order is the teacher-pupil relationship. What has happened here is the worst possible betrayal of our spirituality.” Former victims have few legal options: most child abuse offences in Germany can no longer be prosecuted after the victim turns 18; other abuse crimes fall outside the statute of limitations after five years.

Seasoned child welfare campaigners are doubtful that the Canisius College revelations will have a long-term effect.

“This scandal will end with the usual empty phrases and the church will sit it out until the next time,” says Johannes Heibel, founder of Germany’s Initiative Against Child Abuse.

“The church has to show from its side that is anxious to clear this up, to admit that this is not about individual cases, but I don’t see any indication of that willingness yet and we don’t have the means in Germany to exert real pressure.”

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