Protestant Church in Germany faces sexual abuse allegations

Deutsche Welle [Bonn, Germany]

January 25, 2024

More than 9,000 children and teenagers are estimated to have been sexually abused in Germany’s Protestant Church since 1946, according to a new report. Critics say these findings reveal only the “tip of the iceberg.

[See the report.]

The number of victims of sexual abuse in the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD) is much higher than previously thought, according to a new report published on Thursday.

Commissioned by the EKD in 2020 for around €3.6 million ($3.92m), the report constitutes the first comprehensive study into sexual abuse of children and young people in the EKD since the end of World War II, and its findings represent a huge increase on the 900 previously known cases.

What the report into abuse in the Protestant Church said

The independent researchers said that at least 1,259 perpetrators commited acts of sexual abuse upon 2,174 victims. 

However, the number of unavailable files meant that the total figure could be higher. The study estimated that 9,355 children and young people had suffered sexual abuse since 1946 at the hands of almost 3,500 perpetrators, around one-third of which were members of the clergy. But these projections should be treated with “utmost caution,” according to the researchers.

Coordinated by Martin Wazlawik, professor of social studies at Hanover University, it’s also the first time that such a report has calculated nationwide figures and analyses of structural causes of abuse in the church and its deaconry.

The study investigated around 4,300 disciplinary files, 780 personal files and over 1,300 further documents. By way of comparison, the large-scale report into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in 2018 looked into around 38,000 files.

In its findings, the report concludes that around 64.7% of victims and 99.6% of perpetators were male, with examples of abuse ranging from unnecessary physical contact during sports lessons to sexual penetration.

Around three-quarters of perpetrators were married at the time of their first offense, according to the report.

“As an institution, we have wronged countless numbers of people,” said bishop Kirsten Fehr, EKD council chair, asking “from the heart” for forgiveness and admitting that “we have structures which protect perpetrators.”

What the victims said about the report

Ahead of the publication of the report, victims’ spokesperson Detlev Zander told Deutschlandfunk radio that the study had only looked into confirmed on-the-record cases, that the researchers didn’t have access to all personal files in all 20 state churches.

“Every state church counts differently,” he said, claiming that the federal structure of the Protestant Church hinders investigations into sexual abuse and demanding a more uniform system.

The EDK itself has also acknowledged difficulties in obtaining data via questionnaires leading to delays, and the researchers themselves admitted that the report only represents “the tip of the tip of the iceberg [sic].”

Zander, himself a victim of sexual violence in a children’s home, said he expected an “earthquake” in the church and that the “illusion” that large-scale sexual abuse only took place in the Catholic Church “no longer stands up.”

He also said the €20,000 he received in compensation was not commensurate to the crimes and their consequences. “The criminal institution must pay a lot more,” he demanded.

Abuse already revealed in the Catholic Church

In 2018, the Catholic Church in Germany published a study which found evidence of 3,677 cases of sexual abuse by around 1,670 members of the clergy between 1946 and 2014.

The study led to the creation of the so-called “Synodal Path,” a series of conferences and discussion forums between 2019 and 2023 discussing, among other things, how to react to the findings.

But it also led to calls for a similar study into sexual abuse in Germany’s Protestant Church.

The new report differs from its Catholic equivalent in that it places greater focus on the victims rather than the perpetrators, and also takes into account cases of abuse committed by church volunteers and other figures, not just by the clergy.

The report has also examined charitable institutions linked to the Protestant Church, while the Catholic Church report didn’t feature the charity arm Caritas.

mf/wmr (dpa, KNA, EPD)