The German Church’s thorny path

The Tablet [Market Harborough, England]

July 1, 2021

By Derek Scally

Clerical abuse and its damaging legacy

The Church in Germany is at a tipping point that is reminding many of events of 500 years ago, when a storm of protest was unleashed that was to change the face of Catholicism for ever

In the bright, stuccoed glory of Munich’s Theatine Church, soloists and ensemble reflect mournfully on the Catholic Church’s darkest disgrace. Oratio is a musical work of harrowing beauty by composer Mathias Rehfeldt that adapts Jeremiah’s Lamentations on the fall of Jerusalem (“They shamelessly abused us … the crown has fallen”) to the abuse crisis in the global Catholic Church. As the crisis reaches a scale beyond rational understanding, the searing music of Oratio, paired with an ancient lament of mourning and salvation, opens the ear – and the soul – to a space no words can reach. “We wanted to send a signal that wasn’t just a one-off but would last,” said Fr Robert Mehlhart OP, the co-creator of the piece, conductor of its premiere and director of music at the Theatine. “In the original, ­others are responsible for the catastrophe, but in our piece the evil comes from within. Blame for what happened in the Church cannot be shifted to those outside.”

After three decades of clerical sexual abuse revelations in Ireland, the United States, Australia and elsewhere – with the now familiar cycle of media reports, brave survivors’ testimonies, reluctant enquiries, public fury and gauche apologies – the German Church now finds itself at the same existential tipping point. There is heated disagreement on the causes of the crisis in Germany but, half a millennium after Martin Luther’s stand against Rome, there is a growing consensus that a storm of significant historical gravity is brewing.

In spite of murmurs from elsewhere of a coming schism, no one in Germany expects history to repeat itself in a rupture with Rome. But the sheer size, heft and wealth of Germany’s Catholic Church means that what happens here will have a knock-on effect in Europe and in the global Church. As the church hierarchy tries to address its abuse crisis with one hand, its other hand is managing expectations around its consultation process on church renewal, the so-called Synodaler Weg (the “synodal path”). And some are pushing for more radical changes than the bishops – and Rome – are ready to concede. The grass-roots Maria 2.0 movement demands ordination for women. The reaffirmation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that the Church cannot bless same-sex ­partnerships triggered an unprecedented backlash – hundreds of priests and thousands of parishioners joined the Liebe gewinnt (Love Wins) initiative, a week-long series of blessings for same-sex couples in churches all over Germany.

As if that weren’t enough turbulence, this summer will bring a second report from the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising into abuse allegations which may cast an unflattering eye on the five-year term of Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger there before he left for Rome in 1982. A decade after the first, this new report is expected to be an even deeper dive into diocesan records; if the 94-year-old Pope emeritus is named as being aware of abuse – or a cover-up of abuse – and not having taken appropriate action, the shockwaves would be greater those caused by last month’s resignation letter of his current successor in Munich, Reinhard Marx.

Ask around Bavaria, and the surprise ­resignation by Marx – promptly rejected by Pope Francis – has divided opinion. Some saw it as a publicity stunt, others as a so-called Befreiungsschlag, a liberating push forward for an energetic reformer. In the diocesan headquarters the cardinal’s deputy, vicar ­general Christoph Klingan, told me the initial surprise had now yielded to a period of deep reflection, and a feeling that the Pope agrees with much of Marx’s analysis. “For Cardinal Marx, it is about more than just structural questions, it is about our core: what defines us as a Church?” Fr Klingan explains.

Rarely has that existential question been more urgent. Some 22.6 million Germans identify as Roman Catholic, 27 per cent of the population. (Around 21 million identify as members of the Protestant Churches.) The boundaries of many of its 27 dioceses stretch back to Boniface and Charlemagne and largely reflect the old pre-1871 German landscape of kingdoms, duchies and bishoprics. The dioceses are as rich as they are diverse thanks to a church tax – 8 to 9 per cent of the income tax of all those registered as a Catholic in Germany goes to the Church – which raised €6.76 billion (£5.8bn) in 2019, the highest sum ever. Many inside the German Church view the tax as a mixed blessing: it bankrolls a huge range of church social services, but also a vast bureaucracy that is difficult to steer and, in many cases, wilfully blind to the approaching cliffs.

In order to leave the Church, German Catholics have to arrange an appointment with their municipal office and make a written declaration: 273,000 did so in 2019, up 39 per cent on the number who left in 1995. The number is almost certain to be much higher now, given a steady stream of abuse reports and revelations. In the same period, the number of new priests ordained annually dropped nearly 350 per cent to just 67 in 2020.

Clerical sexual abuse became a public phenomenon in Germany a decade ago thanks to Jesuit priest Fr Klaus Mertes who, as head of Berlin’s elite Canisius College, lifted the lid on abusive clerics on the staff and revealed the suffering of several former students. In 2010 we had sat together in his darkened office, wondering if Germany’s Church would follow Ireland’s into the abyss. How does he view things today?

“The glass is half full and half empty,” Fr Mertes told me. Going public as he did 10 years ago shattered the church taboo on discussing sexualised violence, he recalls. It generated investigative momentum and forced new child protection structures. The process he triggered, though, has also catalysed a widening split between those who see clerical sex abuse as an obligation to pursue a wider project of reform and renewal and those who view efforts to open the Church to the world – in its teachings, its structures and its approach to its past – as part of the problem.

Fr Mertes is critical of how each German bishop has taken his own route, often commissioning lawyers to investigate abuse and cover-up in their diocese. That allows them to control investigators’ access to records, and in some cases even to control whether the report is published. The only national overview of the extent of sex abuse in the Church was a 2018 study detailing 3,677 victims and 1,670 abusing priests and Religious. Survivor groups and their allies want more detail – and a comprehensive independent enquiry.

“What we are lacking in Germany is a fully independent, non-church investigation committee with powers to examine files and make decisions.” But, Fr Mertes adds, “politicians are not interested. This allows progress to be hindered by groups within the Church well connected within the hierarchy, with a fundamentalist, reactionary approach to the faith. The best example of this is Cologne.”

Cologne’s archbishop, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, is the most outspoken critic within the German hierarchy of the synodal way – at least he was until Cardinal Walter Kasper made his unexpected intervention last month. Woelki came under fire for suppressing a report into clerical sexual abuse he himself had commissioned. A second report followed this year which identified 135 victims of abuse and 87 abusing priests, and triggered two bishops’ departure. But critics say this second document was careful to avoid one of the main conclusions of the original report: that church structures were a key contributory factor to abuse.

The cardinal and his defenders see themselves as victims of a campaign from opponents who overlook the need to balance survivor welfare with the rights of those accused. The damaging row has triggered uproar in the Cologne archdiocese, Germany’s largest. In January a local priest, Klaus Koltermann, wrote to Cardinal Woelki warning of “disquiet among the greatest believers” in his parish of Dormagen. When a local newspaper reprinted his letter, Woelki’s office warned him by letter of “possibly serious breaches of your obligations … that could have consequences”. The threat was withdrawn when Fr Koltermann went public with their correspond­ence, a stand-off he describes as a learning experience. “A new solidarity has to grow amongst us,” Fr Koltermann told me. “We have to become more courageous. Sadly, we priests never learned to stand up for our faith – in the Church.”

Pressure on Cardinal Woelki has reached unprecedented levels. In May, a parish in Düsseldorf disinvited him as celebrant at its confirmation Mass. Woelki once served as a deacon in the parish, as did two priests identified as abusers. “You are for us, sadly, no longer credible, we have lost our trust in you as a bishop,” the parish council told him. Woelki went ahead with the confirmations. The latest mishandling of an abuse case linked to Woelki, uncovered by Bild, involves a 16-year-old homeless youth who had sexual contact with a diocesan priest. When Bild challenged Woelki’s description of the priest’s actions as “stupidity” rather than abuse, a diocesan spokesperson hit back at Germany’s most popular newspaper: “Do you think that every voluntary sexual contact with a homeless person is exploitative or forced? Are homeless persons not allowed have sex?”

As a siege mentality grows in Cologne, Cardinal Woelki is now seen as largely isolated and unreachable. The recent week-long papal visitation and upcoming report is, senior church officials say, the last hope to resolve the stand-off. The endless Woelki drama has had a dramatic effect on the Catholic Church in Germany, transforming what was a slow-moving car crash into a high-speed train wreck. Echoing increased demand elsewhere, city officials in Cologne have increased to 1,500 per month the number of bookable slots to file an application to leave the Church.

But seasoned inside observers of the abuse legacy and its investigation say the battle goes far deeper. “This is really about who controls the narrative in the Church,” a well placed investigation source told me. “This is about whether the Church is open to neutral, external [investigators] being given the power to assess the situation and make proposals for the future.”

More than a decade after the clerical sexual abuse reared its head, many church figures in Germany are still speaking of regrettable individual cases and “bad apples”. There is a reluctance to acknowledge the systemic nature of the abuse issue – and the systemic nature of the response, if it is to be successful. Behind public expressions of regret, many bishops and priests remain unwilling to meet abuse survivors. “They are literally not able to verbalise this, anything sexualised is a taboo,” I was told by one person who works regularly with priests and Religious. “Despite them being trained pastoral workers, they are often unable to help one another, let alone anyone else.” And the bishops tend to favour complex, long-term solutions rather than working quickly to assist survivors by building on other countries’ painful learning processes. “The main issues have been on the table here for some time and do not differ largely from those in other jurisdictions,” says another lay- person who works with Religious on the abuse legacy. “But the Germans would rather try to reinvent the wheel, treading water rather than look to reports or expertise in Ireland, the US and Australia.”

A final, as yet unaddressed issue is the Church-State relationship. As a so-called Körperschaft des öffentlichen Rechts, or corporation under public law, the Catholic Church in Germany is classified by the state as a self-managing body acting in the public interest. This arrangement, based on laws dating back to 1919, ostensibly separates Church and State and grants Catholic dioceses corresponding privileges such as permission to accept donations tax-free.

But the reality is of close and interweaving structures and personnel: Germany’s Christian Churches are the largest providers of kindergartens, schools and nursing homes, and are the largest employer of teachers and care workers. This has a passive but palpable effect on the current debate. “There is no real interest from the state side to look closely or step up pressure on bishops to expedite their investigations,” a church official familiar with diocesan enquiries told me.

Post-war German society may be the gold standard for coming to terms with past dictatorships and related crimes, but it has yet to apply this expertise to the Catholic Church. Unlike deferential public officials, German lay Catholics have many channels to express no confidence in their bishops. Those who choose to stay are venting their frustration through lay structures that largely mirror diocesan hierarchical structures. At the head of these is the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK). Its president, Thomas Sternberg, told me the Church is facing an unprecedented mutiny. But anger at clerical sexual abuse and its cover-up is only the straw that has broken the camel’s back. Far deeper, Sternberg argues, lies resentment over how traditional parishes have been integrated into new sprawling structures with little lay consultation, a process he says reflects post-war Germany’s centralisation of power away from parishes and into the hands of German bishops.

Sternberg told me he can “count on one hand” those who resist far-reaching reforms to change that. The next meeting of the synod – a gathering that will include every bishop, representatives from religious orders, lay movements, dioceses and parishes, together with expert consulters and observers from other Churches – will be in October. Lay participants will demand significant reforms, Sternberg says, but they are well aware of the limits of local bishops’ power to make changes to church doctrine. Sternberg jokes that the “very German” synodal process – with its steering groups, working papers and blizzard of detail – should not distract from how the issues raised here are chiming with churchgoers worldwide. “We’re not schismatics, we’re not alone, we are just a little ahead in discussing issues of interest to all,” he told me. “We are not asking questions, such as on women priests, because we expect immediate implementation. But there would have been no liturgical reform without the preparatory work. Every Vatican council needs preparation and everything is on the table now for such a council.”
Not everyone shares Sternberg’s optimism that far-reaching reform is being triggered in Germany. Among some reform-minded Catholics, expectations are low – and sinking fast. Two years ago in the western Catholic heartland of Münster, Lisa Kötter began a church strike that grew into Maria 2.0. Its demands for an equal role for women in the Church, an end to mandatory celibacy for priests and for a proportionate response to the catastrophe of clerical sexual abuse are in tune with the public mood in Germany. And the bishops? They invite me for coffee, Kötter told me, but remain wary of any public show of support. She is so pessimistic about the chances of reform – she views the synodal process as a “simulation” – that she has chosen the Kirchenaustritt – the route of formal ­disaffiliation from the Church. “We see the entire patriarchal basis of the Catholic Church as wrong, and out of step with the teaching of Jesus,” Kötter says. “They haven’t heard the signs of the times, the demands for change. Their ears are trained to hear nothing except their own hymns.”

Many priests are wary of the synodal pathway for different reasons. Munich priest Fr Stefan Scheifele is watching the process with a mixture of detached disbelief. “It has nothing to do with the reality on the ground. The synodal process and the Catholic lay organisations are disconnected from parishioners,” he tells me. “People just want good Masses and sacraments. Most have little time for bishops and structural debates.” That the reform debates will be existential for the preservation of local Churches and the sacraments appears lost on many outside the process.

The vicar general in Fr Scheifele’s diocese, Christoph Klingan, suggests the interminable debates in the Church reflect the “rational” side to the German character, the desire always to “want to understand why things are as they are”.

He explains: “We are a society with high levels of democracy and equal rights for women – and both must be reflected in our Church.” For Fr Klingan, a successful synodal process would create a new understanding of the priest as someone who shares power and responsibility in the parish. It will also have no choice but to grasp the nettle on other current issues. “We need a different perspective on the issue of sexuality, and how we approach people whose lives do not conform to church teaching in its pure form.” He says ways must be found of including them fully in the life of the Church. There are two possible futures for the German Church, he tells me. “One path ahead represents Cardinal Marx’s hope: to win as many people as possible and to move forward with them, even if they are not 100 per cent with church teaching.” The alternative might seem bleak or refreshing, according to taste. “The other path,” says Fr Klingan, leads to a “small, pure Church”.

Days after we speak, the Bishop of Limburg, Georg Bätzing, the head of the German ­bishops’ conference, met Pope Francis in Rome. Not everyone back home shares Bätzing’s post-meeting optimism that the Pope is fully behind the German synodal way. The German Church finds itself at a historic crossroads. And, as 500 years ago, no one should underestimate the disruptive potential for the universal Church of angry German Catholics.

Derek Scally is Berlin correspondent of The Irish Times and author of The Best Catholics in the World: The Irish, the Church and the End of a Special Relationship (Sandycove, £16.99; Tablet price £15.29). Oratio can be viewed here: