Why did it take so long to learn full extent of German sex assault?

According to leaked police documents, more than 2,000 men attacked 1,200 women in various German cities on New Year's Eve.

Oliver Berg/dpa via AP/File
People demonstrate against racism and sexism in Cologne, Germany, on January 9, 2016 in the aftermath of a string of New Year's Eve sexual assaults and robberies. The poster reads "No violence against women."

One of the most infamous episodes at the height of Europe’s migrant crisis was a wave of sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve in German cities, notably Cologne.

Even at the time, details seemed to emerge at a snail’s pace, as authorities tried to balance the need for transparency with fears of a backlash against immigrants.

Now, it seems as though the numbers eventually made public vastly underestimated the truth, in terms of how many women had been assaulted and how many suspects were involved.

In a leaked police report, published Sunday by the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, the total number of victims that night stands at 1,200, with more than half in Cologne and about 400 in Hamburg. More than 2,000 suspects were allegedly involved, but only 120 have so far been identified.

Of those, a mere four have been convicted, though other trials are underway.

"There is a connection between the emergence of this phenomenon and the rapid migration in 2015," president of the German Federal Crime Police Office, Holger Münch, told Sueddeutsche Zeitung, according to The Washington Post. He added that many of the crimes will likely never be solved, given the challenges investigators face in identifying the suspects.

However, this low rate of conviction is not unique to the assaults of New Year’s Eve.

“According to Federal Association of Rape Crisis Centers and Women’s Counseling Centers in Germany, between 2001 and 2012, Germany averaged 8,000 reports of sexual assault per year, but the number of those that were brought to court numbered only 1,300 annually,” The Christian Science Monitor’s Sara Miller Lana wrote in the immediate aftermath of the mass assaults. “In that entire span, there were fewer than 1,000 prosecutions, and only 10 percent of those resulted in conviction.”

German authorities are not blind to the problem, and they have taken steps to improve the situation. Only last week, the parliament unanimously passed a “no means no” rape law that expanded the definition of the crime in an effort to close loopholes that made it hard to secure convictions.

"It shall no longer be required that the offender must forcibly overcome the victim," reads the new law. "Rather, it shall be sufficient that the will of the victim is recognized and the perpetrator defies it."

But exactly why, in this case, the new numbers have taken so long to emerge – and then only because a document was leaked – seems hard to fathom for much of the German public. Observers cite the same reason that lay behind the initial resistance to publicizing specifics, namely a reluctance to fuel anger toward refugees.

Certainly, the scale of the New Year’s Eve assaults was unprecedented, and police, as well as German women and society as a whole, may still be trying to understand how to deal with it.

"Up until now we've lived in a ridiculously free country," Katy, a Cologne resident, told the Monitor. "Suddenly we're feeling really painful limits to our freedom, which the police themselves underestimated because there has never before been such an experience like this."

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