Report finds hundreds of child sex abuse cases in German diocese

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  • An investigation into Germany's top diocese has uncovered hundreds of cases of sexual assault violence at the institution.
  • More than half the victims were children under the age of 14, a report has found.
  • The authors of the report said the actual number of victims was almost certainly much higher.

An independent study commissioned by the Roman Catholic Church uncovered hundreds of cases of sexual violence allegedly committed by clergy and laymen in Germany's top diocese, its authors said Thursday.

The long-awaited 800-page report on the Cologne diocese found 202 alleged perpetrators of sexual assault and 314 victims between 1975 and 2018, Bjoern Gercke, a lawyer mandated by the Church, told reporters.

"More than half of the victims were children under the age of 14," Gercke said.

However, the investigation cleared Cologne's Archbishop Rainer Maria Woelki, a conservative who has long resisted reform, of breach of duty over the abuse.

'Tragedy of Cologne'

Woelki had faced months of protests for refusing to allow the publication of an earlier study on abuse committed by priests in his diocese.

He had justified his decision by citing a right to privacy of the alleged perpetrators accused in the report, carried out by a Munich law firm, and what he called a lack of independence on the part of some researchers.

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His approach was branded "a disaster" as recently as late February by Georg Baetzing, president of the German bishops' conference.

In the wake of Thursday's damning report, Woelki said he was suspending two Cologne Church officials, bishop Dominikus Schwaderlapp and the head of a diocese court, Guenter Assenmacher, with immediate effect, citing a "cover-up" of abuse cases.

Woelki pledged to take more concrete measures next week after reading the report in full.

The abuse scandal returns to the headlines just as the Catholic Church has made small steps toward addressing decades of abuse and a culture of enforced silence.

"The tragedy of Cologne regarding the report and the archbishop overshadowed this aspect," the government commissioner on child sexual abuse, Johannes-Wilhelm Roerig, said recently.

'Disrupting' reform

A study commissioned by the German Bishops' Conference and released in 2018 showed that 1 670 clergymen had committed some type of sexual attack against 3 677 minors, mostly boys, between 1946 and 2014.

However, its authors said the actual number of victims was almost certainly much higher.

The revelations, which mirror paedophile scandals in countries including Australia, Chile, France, Ireland and the United States, prompted Cardinal Reinhard Marx, a prominent reformer, to apologise on behalf of the German Catholic Church.

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The Church currently pays victims an average of 5 000 euros ($5 953) "in recognition of their suffering", as well as covering their therapy fees. Victims have called the sum woefully insufficient.

Meanwhile, each diocese in Germany has ordered a separate local investigation into abuse among its ranks.

The scandal in Cologne has sapped energy from efforts to spearhead broader reforms at a time when the Church is losing members, who in Germany pay a tax that goes toward church activities including charity work.

Germany's Catholic Church counted 22.6 million members in 2019 and it is still the largest religion in the country, but the number is two million fewer than in 2010 when the first major wave of paedophile abuse cases came to light.

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Among the reforms on the table, in the face of opposition from Woelki and the pope, are a reevaluation of celibacy in the clergy, married priests and a greater role for lay people and women in the Church.

In a setback for members calling for greater openness, the Vatican on Monday said the Church did not have the power to bless same-sex unions, declaring it was impossible for God to "bless sin".

That reaffirmation of a harder line is no accident, said Thomas Sternberg, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics, calling it a way for Rome to "disrupt" the German reform drive.

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