La Civiltà Cattolica - Society of Jesus [Rome, Italy]
November 15, 2023
By Hans Zollner SJ
On the morning of September 10, 2023, the following news appeared on the website of the Swiss Bishops’ Conference: “Canonical Investigations into Suspected Concealment of Sexual Abuse by Members of the Swiss Bishops’ Conference.” This news was a prelude to the publication, two days later, of the Report on the Pilot Project for the History of Sexual Abuse in the Context of the Roman Catholic Church in Switzerland since the Mid-20th Century. What consequences will result from these investigations and when these investigations will be continued cannot yet be predicted.
The problem of the credibility of the Church
Such a situation, with so much of the background and details still unknown, is all too familiar to those who deal with the issue of abuse and its cover-up in the Catholic Church. It is almost predictable that much remains obscure; that because of the complexity of the issue, multiple responsibilities and historical processes, it is often not even clear where the original responsibility lies and who could and should bring light to this situation. In this regard, the Report on the Pilot Project and the news preview reflect what has happened many times on similar occasions in the past. Great agitation, growing nervousness and vague statements create the following picture: within the Catholic Church there is not only a substantial number of abuse victims and perpetrators. At best, the Church, hopelessly overwhelmed by the situation, fails to offer clarification, to deal with or publicly address the issues; at worst, a reluctant or even a downright destructive and defensive approach emerges.
From a rational point of view this is difficult to explain, because this sad spectacle has occurred repeatedly in recent decades, with serious consequences, foremost among them a massive loss of credibility. One would think that it should not be too difficult to learn from past mistakes. But, as the Report on the Pilot Project shows, mechanisms for self-monitoring, learning from experience and improving procedures are not developed, or are so only in a very limited way. Unfortunately, there are still bishops and religious superiors who believe it is best for them to keep silent about abuse, to prevent scandal damaging their image and that of the Church as a whole. They still act as if what has happened in other local Churches does not apply to them, thus setting the stage for immense damage. There is still a lack of understanding that, with a view to the future, it would be much better – and more honest – to admit that serious mistakes have been made and crimes covered up in the Church and, in view of this, to honestly ask for forgiveness.
The faithful are aware of this, and so is the media. What the public and an increasing number of Catholics no longer tolerate is the concealment and denial of responsibility. Moreover, it can also be shown that it is this avoidance behavior – and not just the fact of abuse – that is a central reason for the rapid decline in trust in the Church. However, many in the Church do not realize that distrust of bishops and other Church representatives has an impact on the credibility of their proclamation of the Christian message. It is obvious that the message is less likely to be believed if the messenger is not credible because of his actions. Those who preach well and behave badly gradually destroy the very basis of faith.
The Report at a glance
The Report on the Pilot Project was presented after one year of work (from spring 2022 to spring 2023) by a group of researchers using three languages, supported by two students, with male and female experts as advisers. The research perspectives and working methods are in accord with the historiographic expertise of the research team from the Department of History at the University of Zurich, led by Monika Dommann and Marietta Meier. The research was commissioned by the Swiss Bishops’ Conference, the Central Roman Catholic Conference of Switzerland and the Conference of Unions of Religious Orders and Other Communities of Consecrated Life in Switzerland.
The research team consulted about two dozen archives of Catholic Church institutions and also external ones and collected, read and partly analyzed tens of thousands of pages of abuse case files. In addition, interviews were conducted with victims, experts and Church representatives. According to the authors, victims and two victims’ organizations – the Interessengemeinschaft für Missbrauchsbetroffene im kirchlichen Umfeld (IG-MikU) and the group Soutien aux personnes abusées dans une relation d’autorité religieuse (SAPEC) – provided advice.
The Report marks the end point of a pilot study and is “not a definitive analysis, but […] an initial outline of possible areas and projects for further investigation” (18). The preface and introduction are followed by a text of just under 100 pages. Subsequent chapters are initially devoted to setting the historical context. It is unclear why “The history of the abuse scandal: from the Boston Globe to the pilot project” was chosen as the title (21-26), while the text also explicitly refers to the period before 2002 (i.e., before the Boston Globe’s Spotlight publications). Next, an “important” section (19) of the study deals with the structures of the Catholic Church in Switzerland and the examination of their respective archives and their relevance to sexual abuse research (27-48); then there is a focus on the people who have been abused, the associations supporting them and their contribution to the implementation of the study (49-54); reflections on the contexts of sexual abuse follow (55-80), although the “Catholic specificities of abuse” are discussed here and not in the next chapter. Then there is a chapter on “the Catholic Church’s handling of sexual abuse” (81-108). The thematic conclusion consists of recommendations and suggestions (109-114).
At the end of the document is an 18-page bibliography, in which, without precise cataloging, a manageable number of references to scholarly articles on the subject has been included, alongside many links to newspaper articles and a large number of reports with a link to Switzerland, and some studies on the situation in continental European countries.
Main findings of the Report
One emblematic case, often cited in the German-language media, concerns Swiss priest G. A. He was sentenced to two years in prison in the early 1960s for “repeated and continued immoral acts with and in front of children” (13). This was already the second major conviction for the priest, who up to that time had nonetheless continued to work in pastoral care and have contact with minors and who, according to court documents, had sexually abused at least 67 children. When G. A., upon taking up his position in a parish in central Switzerland, received his first sentence of one year in prison – suspended with parole for five years – for “acts of lechery on children,” a parish priest wrote to the then bishop of Chur, “The news spread like wildfire in the country, and on the following Sunday I spoke from the pulpit as best I could. What I said must have had some effect, because suddenly everything calmed down. I also justified my attitude, my choice to hide and ignore this sad affair, and they understood. It was a difficult Sunday” (83).
After the first conviction G. A. had to leave the parish – officially for “health reasons” – but Church leaders sought a new placement for him. However, since the potential parishes were aware of the true reason for the transfer, they protested against his appointment. So, G. A. was eventually transferred to the diocese of Basel, and his previous bishop wrote in a letter, “When five years are over, you will be able to return.” Even after his release from prison, G. A. was able to continue as a priest: he was appointed pastor and worked actively in various parishes for nearly four decades.
It is clear from the pilot study that the transfer of priest offenders within Switzerland was a frequently used approach. In the new location, those in charge were not always aware of the past of a priest like G. A., and the parish community not at all.
To make matters worse, those in charge often refrained from reporting relevant cases to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. In the episcopal archives of the Basel diocese, for example, this is evidenced by a letter in G. A.’s personal file, written by a priest: “According to canon law, your case should be reported to Rome. However, we usually do not do this, so that priests can be more easily placed elsewhere after serving their sentence” (90).
Reading the pilot study, it becomes clear that the case of G. A. is far from being an isolated instance regarding the Catholic Church in the country. In light of the numerous studies of bishops’ conferences, dioceses, religious orders or ecclesiastical institutions that have since been published in other countries, this finding is not surprising, but it is no less shocking.
The Report – just like the reports on abuse in Germany – is unable to quantify the exact number of abuse cases within the Catholic Church in Switzerland. It is true that the pilot project managed to identify in the files 1,002 cases of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in Switzerland, with 510 accused and 921 victims. However, the actual number of abuse cases, as well as the number of accused and the number of victims is probably much higher. According to the researchers, the cases identified in the archives are “undoubtedly only the tip of the iceberg” (15).
The team of historians cites incomplete sources as one of the main reasons for the allegedly high number of unreported cases. “In some cases, it has been ascertained that the complaints of abused persons were not written down in a rigorous manner and that not all complaints were recorded and kept in the archives,” (15) the Report states. Finally, according to the team of researchers, based on the results of investigations in these admittedly grey areas, it can be assumed that only a small proportion of sexual abuse cases were reported to Church or state authorities, which would probably also be related to the Catholic Church’s long-standing prominent position in society. As in other European regions or countries – just look at the June 2022 investigation of abuse in the Diocese of Münster – a largely closed Catholic environment in which the majority had no interest in reporting accurately and abuse was kept under wraps. Even in the 1970s, as one of those affected by abuse states in the Report, priests, as “representatives of God,” were untouchable, even in the case of serious criminal behavior.
Regarding the extent of the gaps in the archives, researchers in the Report again refer to the case of priest G. A. The court documents available, which record the sexual abuse of 67 children, refer only to a period of six years. However, G. A. allegedly worked for decades in several Swiss parishes and, the Report states, “what happened during those years and, more importantly, whether there were cases of sexual abuse during that time frame remains obscure in the available sources” (16).
Limitations of the historical approach
In the light of other reports and expert research, much additional information in the Report is not at all surprising, as the authors themselves note. In fact, both the number of people affected by abuse – the authors explain in the text that they do not speak of “victims,” at the request of the people affected by abuse – and the number of people accused are probably of the same order of magnitude we know from reports and surveys published in other countries in previous years.
According to the Report, 510 accused persons and 921 abused persons were identified; 149 accused persons could be linked to at least two abused persons, while in the case of 361 accused persons, sexual abuse was proven for only one person. In 39 percent of the cases the abused person was female, in just under 56 percent of the cases male, while in 5 percent the gender was not clearly identifiable based on available sources. The accused persons were, with few exceptions, exclusively men. And further, “The records analyzed during the pilot project show that 74 percent involved sexual abuse committed against children of different age groups: from abuse of infants and prepubescent children to abuse of postpubescent young adults of both genders. Fourteen percent of the abuses were committed on adults, while in 12 percent of the cases the age of the abused person was not clearly identifiable” (15). Thus, according to the researchers, at least one in seven cases would have involved an adult. “This finding is particularly significant because until now many of the studies of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church have focused exclusively on minors, thus leaving out a significant proportion of abused persons,” the Report continues.
As the authors make clear, it should be remembered in particular that behind each of the 921 people cited in the Report who were affected by sexual or other violence (as well as those abused by 30 Swiss who were working abroad), there is unspeakable suffering and an often difficult or tragic life story. The wounds, the despair and the search for healing of the victims themselves, but also of their families, friends and colleagues, must be a wake-up call for all those who see themselves as part of the Christian faith and the Catholic Church. It is necessary to get out of a state of paralysis, of excessive disappointment and anger, and to contribute what everyone can in their environment: to listen to those affected by abuse, not to run away from their stories and concerns, to share as much as possible their pain and wounds, and to find out, by conversing with them, how the Church and society can help prevent abuse as much as possible. Too often, in fact, victims have had doors shut in their faces when they wanted to speak; perpetrators have been treated leniently by parishes and their lay representatives and transferred by superiors; the reputation of parishes, dioceses and the Church has been too high on the list of priorities.
The authors state at the beginning and end of the Report that they “were able to work independently and […] were not in any way influenced in their research” (14). Requests to consult files in the archives of dioceses and some religious congregations seem to have received a largely positive response: “The research team was generally granted the necessary access to the archives” (109). However, the limitations of a historical approach that relies primarily on archival holdings appear equally clear. This is supported by the following statement from the research team: “An overview of the extent of sexual abuse in ecclesial settings would not be possible even with an exhaustive evaluation of all archival holdings. In fact, a large number of sexual abuse cases left no traces in the archives. In the case of two dioceses, the destruction of records has also been documented, and for others, it should be considered likely that something similar has happened and has been linked to the provisions of canon law. In addition, in some cases it has been ascertained that the reports of abused persons were not recorded in writing accurately and that not all complaints were recorded in the archives” (15).
The researchers also point out that they did not even examine many Church archives in the context of the study and considered state archives only “in a complementary capacity,” which, however, is mainly due to the nature and mandate of the study, which was expressly designed as a one-year “pilot project.” According to the researchers, the survey actually conducted – as already briefly mentioned at the beginning – is not intended to be the conclusion of the scientific investigation of abuse in the Swiss Church, but to lay the foundation for future research on the history of sexual abuse committed by Catholic clergy, Church employees and members of religious orders in Switzerland since the mid-20th century. According to current information, a follow-up project is planned for the years 2024-26.
Starting points, perspectives and the supranational framework
The researchers want the survey documents to be turned over to the Swiss Historical Society to ensure scientific traceability. The quality and sustainability of the exercise of the duty of supervision and care by state bodies is also a matter of some concern: “Since state authorities have often delegated social work and educational tasks to the Church, especially in Catholic cantons, future studies should take a closer look at the responsibility of the state in this context, also relating to the field of research on coercive measures for welfare purposes” (111).
Therefore, this study can only be the beginning of a comprehensive reworking that must necessarily include other academic disciplines and approaches, as the researchers themselves concede: “For such questions, collaboration with other academic disciplines is necessary in order to address these issues and contexts from a sociological, legal or theological perspective” (ibid.). Why psychological and psychiatric perspectives are not mentioned in this list is unclear. And while three of the five “recommendations and suggestions” (113) focus on archival heritage and its accessibility, one wonders how realistic this can be, given the known incompleteness of existing records. Rather, the insight, expressed elsewhere, that “work with archival materials urgently needs to be complemented by the methods of Oral History and empirical social research” (111) seems important.
In essence, the Report points out that with regard to sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the Church and its cover-up, Switzerland is not an isolated case. The Swiss Catholic Church shows the same errors and inadequacies that have led to crimes and their cover-up in the Church worldwide, namely that “until the 2000s, Church leaders ignored, concealed or minimized sexual abuse. When they were forced to act, they often did so not with the abused persons in mind, but rather focused on the protection of the perpetrators, the institution and their own positions” (110). In many cases, sexual abuse was “pushed aside,” the accused were transferred, abused persons and witnesses forced to remain silent. In this way, “Church leaders accepted the possible occurrence of other cases of sexual abuse” (ibid.).
Similar results to other countries were found in the following areas: the period in which most of the reported cases of abuse occurred (about half between 1950 and 1969); the predominant number of male victims (significantly more than half); a confusing and impenetrable picture of the current 153 religious communities and congregations in Switzerland compared to diocesan structures, which is particularly evident from the fact that, with few exceptions, in the larger communities almost no records on this issue have been preserved or found in the archives (cf. 41f).
In the case of Switzerland, many may be surprised to learn that the special features of constitutional ecclesiastical law (e.g., the dual system, with its cooperation between ecclesiastical and civil law bodies, a unique case for the Catholic Church) and the increased power of the laity in ecclesiastical leadership, as well as financial independence from the bishop, apparently have not led in any way to a decrease in abuse or a clearer and more effective approach to dealing with perpetrators. The enlightening case studies listed in the Report clearly show that clericalism is not a phenomenon involving only clerics. In parishes, dioceses and among “progressive” bishops, the same mechanisms as “conservative” bishops have prevented abuse from being stopped and perpetrators from being brought to justice.
All this should be investigated further. The same research team provides perspective in this regard when they write, “The question of the extent to which the dual structure of the Catholic Church in Switzerland influenced the possibility of sexual abuse, as well as its concealment and cover-up, is also not fully clarified” (111).
Regarding the places where abuse cases occurred in the context of the Church, the research team lists three “social contexts” in the Report: 1) pastoral care; 2) the area of the social, charitable and educational activities of the Church; and 3) religious orders and similar forms of religious life. However, the areas in which pastoral care is exercised – particularly confessions, altar-serving and catechesis – were by far the most frequent environments for abuse, accounting for more than 50 percent of the cases identified. The Report lists religious houses, schools, colleges and similar Catholic institutions as the second most frequent crime scenes (30 percent). It should be noted that previously published abuse reports for German dioceses had produced similar results regarding the locus of pastoral care as a crime scene.
Regarding the Church’s handling of accused persons, the Report shows similar patterns to those already uncovered in other reports on abuse and which were thematized in the “Synodal Path of the Catholic Church in Germany” as one of the “systemic causes” of abuse. According to the Report, Church leaders systematically relocated accused and convicted clerics, sometimes even abroad, to avoid a civil trial and allow the clerics to continue their work. In this way, the interests of the Church and its representatives were put before the welfare and protection of community members. The researchers noted at least one change for the better in the period after the turn of the century: the Swiss Bishops’ Conference has since issued guidelines for dealing with and preventing cases of sexual abuse, establishing diocesan committees of experts to deal with reported cases. However, according to the researchers, these committees still differ greatly in their working methods and are professional to varying degrees.
In addition to the highlighted similarities, however, there are some unique aspects to Switzerland. First, that such a study was commissioned only in 2022, thus much later than in Germany and France. Furthermore, there are the different national languages, cultural characteristics and legal systems in the cantons, and the resulting organizational forms and levels of responsibility in the national Churches, parishes and other Church institutions.
This Report reflects the fact that topics that were not on the agenda five or 10 years ago have recently moved to the center of focus. These include the question of what constitutes spiritual abuse and what role it plays in sexual violence. In addition, attention is given to the abuse of vulnerable adults. Both cases are mentioned and addressed in the Report, where the authors always rightly stress the need for further discussion and research in these areas.
Let us also make some critical remarks about the Report here. For example, in relation to the request to inspect documents at the Nunciature in Switzerland, the authors came to the following conclusion, “The research team’s request received a negative response because of concerns about the diplomatic protection of the Nunciature. Despite repeated assurances of transparency by Pope Francis and other Vatican officials, the doors for a scientific investigation of the past are still closed to independent researchers” (39). This conclusion by the research team reveals a fundamental conflict regarding how to understand the role and powers of an Apostolic Nuncio, which had already led to similar tensions in Australia (2013) and the United Kingdom (2019). The Holy See has signaled that the archives of a Nunciature “are inviolable at all times and wherever they are located” under Article 24 of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Therefore, a Nuncio cannot allow documents kept in the archives of the diplomatic mission to be viewed or handed over. In principle, the Holy See can hand over documents if there is a corresponding justified request from the judicial authorities of the state concerned (i.e., a formal international request), transmitted through the usual diplomatic channels (in the Swiss case, between the Swiss courts and the Dicasteries of the Holy See). Therefore, if the Holy See has not received any formal request for inspection of a particular file by the Swiss judicial authorities, the Nuncio’s hands are tied. Indeed, in similar cases, the Holy See has certainly provided the requested documents, in accordance with international practice. However, if only on the basis of the findings of this and many previous studies, we can hardly assume that we will be able to find complete documentation of abuse allegations and the actions of ecclesiastical superiors in ecclesiastical archives.
In addition, the research team makes the following historical assessment: prior to 2002, “extensive research and reporting on the issue of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church had already been going on for decades in the United States and Ireland” (21). It is not clear exactly what research is being referred to. To date, however, research and teaching on abuse and prevention in public, private and ecclesiastical universities in the United States is limited to interested scholars and is usually funded through short-term projects.
Finally, the authors state that “in Spain, the Catholic Church has so far refused to conduct a scientific examination of sexual abuse in its domain” (23) and refer exclusively to the El País research. This does not correspond to the facts, because the Spanish Bishops’ Conference commissioned a study in early 2021, which is expected to be published soon.
As regards this Report, as with previous similar reports, its effects are at least as important as the Report itself. Media news items and articles, as well as discussions immediately following the publication of the Report show once again that the usual communication patterns of Church authorities and officials contribute to even more anger, frustration and bewilderment. The offering of apologies, almost as a ritual gesture, is perceived as empty if the apologies are not accompanied by approaches that demonstrate that they are not just words. These include, in addition to the list of measures that the Swiss Bishops’ Conference published on September 23, 2023, the issue of personal responsibility, including the possibility of resigning, whether those held to be responsible are bishops, abbots or provincials. In this sense, it is hoped that this Report will “initiate a comprehensive examination of the issue of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church” (5) in Switzerland and other countries. The hope is that this will indeed happen and that it will be salutary for abused persons and for all Catholics in Switzerland.
. See www.ivescovi.ch/indagini-canoniche-sul-sospetto-di-occultamento-di-abusi-sessuali-da-parte-di-diversi-membri-della-conferenza-dei-vescovi-svizzeri
. See https://tinyurl.com/59zpbset/. The Report was prepared by Vanessa Bignasca, Lucas Federer, Magda Kaspar, and Lorraine Odier, with the collaboration of Janaina Rüegg and Elia Stucki, and the direction of Monika Dommann and Marietta Meier. In the article, numbers in parentheses refer to pages in the Report.
. See www.ivescovi.ch/comunicato-la-cvs-decide-misure-immediate