Germany faces up to sexual abuse after scandals at Catholic, other schools

Allegations of sexual abuse at schools run by the Catholic and Lutheran churches, as well as at an elite secular boarding school, have put child protection at the top of the domestic agenda in Germany.

Johannes Eisele/Reuters
Youths walk through the monastery school in Ettal, Germany, site of an investigation into possible sexual abuse of former pupils.

At first, Germans were stunned by revelations about elite Jesuit boarding schools, where hundreds of former pupils say they suffered sexual abuse in the 1970s and '80s. Then attention turned to the Lutheran Church, which apologized for widespread abuse after World War II in its children's institutions. And last month, a similar pattern of abuse, and a coverup, rocked one of the country's most prestigious progressive boarding schools.

The experience in Germany is a reminder that the criticism swirling around the Catholic church and Pope Benedict XVI -- that they failed to do enough to protect children in their care -- is not an exclusively Catholic problem. Pope Benedict, celebrating his fifth anniversary as Pope today, referred to the church as a "wounded sinner" that feels "all the more the consolation of God," according to L'Osservatore Roman, a Vatican newspaper.

In Germany, what were first played down as isolated incidents have multiplied, prompting national soul-searching over the treatment of children in formerly trusted institutions – religious and secular, public and private – and spurring calls for reform.

"Most schools in the country are deeply shaken," says Ursula Enders, founder of Zartbitter in Cologne, Germany's biggest counseling center for young victims of sexual abuse. "Because of what's happened... they have recognized the relevance of the issue, and they are ready to institute change."

Schools, church choirs, and sports and scouts' clubs have all started reforming to better protect children. And Chancellor Angela Merkel has made confronting trauma and inappropriate adult-children relationships a priority: On April 23 government ministers are scheduled to meet with educators and children's advocates to talk about compensation, criminal prosecution, and prevention.

The Rev. Ansgar Thim, who handles abuse cases for the Roman Catholic diocese of Hamburg, says he was "overwhelmed" by the extent of revelations about Jesuit priests molesting children and adolescents – first in Berlin, and later at the St. Ansgar School in Hamburg, the St. Blasien College in the Black Forest, and in several parishes in Lower Saxony. "We're not prepared," he says. "But there is movement now."

At the same time, some 100 former pupils of Odenwald, a secular, progressive elite school, said sexual abuse there had been rampant.

Odenwald elite

Like Jesuit schools, the Odenwald School has long educated a German elite seeking an alternative to public education. But while the Jesuits focused on discipline, Odenwald thrived in the anti-authoritarian context of the late 1960s.

Born out of a philosophy of teaching children according to their individual desires and needs, it is located at the foot of rolling hills near Frankfurt.

Uprooting children from what it sees as the negative impact of urban life is part of the approach, says Anne Sliwka, head of research at Heidelberg University's School of Education. In addition to traditional classes like math and German, pupils can take gardening and carpentry; they learn by living in small groups headed by their teacher, the "family head."

But now, experts say that some tenets, in particular the idea of closeness between pupils and teachers, and the school's remote locale, could have led to sexual abuse. "There was a sort of sexual libertinage that was seen as inherent to a child's emancipation and presented to the children as ideal," says Micha Brumlik, an education specialist at Goethe University in Frankfurt.

Now, there's a national discussion on what relationships between adults and children should look like, especially in boarding schools. "There must be a difference between schools being public places of teaching and the family being private," says Jürgen Oelkers, an education historian at the University of Zurich, in Switzerland. "The Odenwald school mixed up the two."

Mr. Brumlik cautions that alternative education shouldn't be abandoned. "Learning through social skills and aesthetical values is important," he says. "Children learn to articulate themselves by means of the arts and with their body, through sport."

More scrutiny

A good positive from the scandals, say experts, is more scrutiny of institutions with closed structures that may have encouraged a culture of silence. "In authoritative structures, children don't learn as much how to voice their fears," says Ms. Enders, who works with sexually abused children. "In liberal settings that do not have clear rules, people don't say anything, either. They consider things normal."

That there was abuse at Odenwald, as there was at some Catholic schools, isn't news. In 1998, the school's principal was formally accused of sexual abuse. He resigned and the charges were dropped. The school today admits its inquiry was inadequate.

"Now we are confronting the issue," says Enders, "and it's easier for boys and girls to talk about it."

"The taboos are gone," says Ms. Sliwka. "We can no longer idealistically believe that a teacher is always a good person."

In church and children's institutions, as well as in political circles, officials say they want to pursue child molesters more aggressively. Be­fore the Vatican issued guidelines in early April on how the church should respond to sex-abuse complaints involving priests, the Bavarian Catholic Church had said it would report all abuse cases to the police immediately.

Odenwald principal Margarita Kaufmann promised a "comprehensive and transparent investigation." She also pledged to improve teacher selection and training. The state of Hessen, home to Odenwald, wants to require schools to report all suspected cases of abuse and said it will launch an investigation of all 33 boarding schools in the state.

Creating a climate where children cannot be hurt in any child-oriented institution is where the discussion is focused. "We have to teach the children that they have to be able to say no," says Elkin Deligöz, a member of Parliament from the Green Party. "We have to end this culture of looking the other way."

"We're talking about what professionalism means in terms of closeness and distance: in which areas is distance good; in which areas closeness is good; how close is too close, how distant is too distant," says Sliwka in Heidelberg. "Every structure has to immunize itself. Each child should know where to go when abuse occurs. There has to be an ombudsman, a code of conduct, a set of structures."

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