Cardinal Schönborn: 'Spiral of silence' is at the heart of ongoing clerical sex abuse

By Christa Pongratz-Lippitt
LaCroix International
July 8, 2019


Archbishop of Vienna says Church should encourage victims to speak and should listen to them

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the third most senior active cardinal in the worldwide Church, has called on bishops and other Catholic officials to better engage in listening to victims of clergy sex abuse.

At a lecture last month in the Austrian capital of Vienna, where he has been archbishop since 1995, Schönborn said listening to victims was essential to breaking the "spiral of silence" that has allowed such abuse to continue for so long.

"The victims have to overcome an enormously high threshold even to begin talking," the 74-year-old cardinal said at a conference on "Sex & Crime" at the Religiosity in Psychiatry and Psychotherapy Institute at Vienna University.

He shared his own experience of what he described as the Austrian Church's "25-year-long painful learning process" of clerical sexual abuse.

Schönborn, a Dominican theologian who became an auxiliary bishop of Vienna Archdiocese in 1991, recalled how it was not until he had actually met with and listened to victims that he was able to overcome his initial defensive reflexes, correct his wrong assumptions and completely change his awareness of clerical sexual abuse.

Breaking the silence, becoming aware

But he said it was extremely difficult to get victims to talk about the abuse they had experienced.

The cardinal said a number of victims had told him, "if only I hadn't begun (talking about the abuse)," telling him they believed suppressing the memory of the painful trauma might spare them even greater suffering.

He said fear of talking about the abuse is understandable since "the entire abuse scenario relies on the victims remaining silent, that is, on the strategy of a spiral of silence."

Schönborn said his first contact with the reality of abuse was in the 1980s when he was teaching theology at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.

A nun with strong suicidal tendencies, to whom he'd been offering spiritual direction for an extended period of time, at one point had a sudden memory recall of how her father had abused her for years.

"Her memories had been so tightly locked away, it was as if a concrete ceiling had been put on them and when that ceiling collapsed, that caused an immense trauma," Schönborn said.

It was something he had never come in contact with before. That was when he realized that recovery of a suppressed memory meant reliving it, which is sometimes even worse than the initial experience.

He said victims often think they are to blame for the abuse, particularly when the perpetrators persuade themselves that they are not guilty and pass the blame onto the victims.

"That priests who have devoted their lives to God, pastoral work and the healing of people should refuse to acknowledge their own guilt, was the most agonizing experience for me during the abuse crisis of 2010," he said.

"The fact that such cases exist is so shattering that the Church as a community – but above all we bishops and priests – deserve to blush deeply, even those who can say, 'It wasn't me, it was someone else,'" he emphasized.

The cardinal said he's convinced that abuse of religion is, by far, the worst form of abuse in the Church.

Karadima and Groer: Charismatic priests who spiritually and sexually abused

He said this was made abundantly clear in the scandal surrounding Fernando Karadima, a former priest (now laicized) from Chile.

He pointed out that the charismatic Karadima had persuaded many young men to become priests, had "gathered his disciples around him like a guru, and was their undisputed spiritual leader for whom the world consisted of those who were his disciples and 'the others.'"

Schönborn said that during visits to Chile he personally experienced the "schism" Karadima caused. He said the concentration on one figure had been the starting point of the spiritual abuse.

"Sexual abuse usually starts with spiritual abuse," the cardinal insisted, pointing out that Karadima went on to sexually abuse his young adult "disciples" who remained silent.

He said there were many parallels in the Karadima case and that of the late Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, who was Archbishop of Vienna from 1986-1995. Groer was the first cardinal to be publicly accused of sexually abusing a minor in 1995.

Schönborn, who was named Groer's coadjutor archbishop and then successor in that same year, said: "The reason why they remained silent was the gratification of belonging to Karadima's group and fear of being excluded from the 'chosen circle.' Similarly, Groer had first gathered young 'disciples' around him and then later abused them."

Defending Groer, then blowing the whistle

Schönborn admitted that he, too, had at first greatly respected Groer.

Thus when Groer was first publicly accused of abusing a minor, his (Schönborn's) first reaction had been to defend him.

In a public statement on television he had declared that the accusations were false and likened them to "Nazi-methods." But he quickly had to withdraw his defense of the cardinal.

Three years later – in 1998 – several others who were Groer's victims spoke out. Schönborn said his meeting with one of them had a deep impact on him and that was when he realized how important it was to tell the victim that he believed him.

"I was not acting as a judge in a courtroom, but openly expressing my personal conviction that I believed what the person I was talking to had told me," the cardinal explained.

In March 1998, just a few weeks after becoming a cardinal at age 53, he and three other Austrian bishops publicly declared they had "moral certainty" that the allegations against Groer were "in essence" true.

They went on to say the Church's pastoral work must not "be burdened with the crippling suspicion that the reputation of a cardinal is more important than the well-being of young people."

This, he said, led to a conflict with Rome.

"Rome did not want to heed my warning that abuse occurred, above all, in the context of spiritual direction, and probably also during confession (one Groer victim was abused during confession). My demand for strict sanctions was not heard," Schönborn said.

But he said Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was the Austrian bishops' "refuge." He said it was Ratzinger who, in 2001, persuaded Pope John Paul II to establish a court for serious crimes (delicta graviora).

Schönborn said the "Groer Affair" thus gave Austria a "painful head start" in the Church's learning process on abuse, which had already begun to spread to the whole Church.

It was therefore seen as exemplary in Church circles for the way it handled clerical abuse, the cardinal concluded.


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