From abuse crisis, Germany's Roman Catholics seek reform

The Roman Catholic priest sex abuse crisis is prompting Germany's faithful to revisit the spiritual roots of their church.

Matthias Schrader/AP
The Augsburg Dom cathedral in southern Germany. German Bishop Walter Mixa resigned his post amid allegations of physical abuse and financial misconduct. The priest sex abuse crisis sweeping across Europe and the US is causing mass defections, but also inward soul-searching for change in the Roman Catholic church.

Revelations of child abuse by priests in Europe and the United States are a crisis for the Roman Catholic church. But they are also leading Catholics to speak more freely, raising reform voices among lay members, priests, and theologians.

The top priority for many Catholics is generating a more spiritual and biblical focus for the church and ending a traditional "two-track" Catholicism, where priests are implicitly considered to have a higher religious nature. They also see the abuse crisis as part of a deeper malaise and hypocrisy that can still be redeemed.

In Germany, Pope Benedict's native land, where the abuse crisis hit suddenly and hard in a series of cases since January, some dioceses have reported surging defections by parishioners. Devout Catholics have been reeling, but are also searching to restore moral credibility to a church they love.

Reformist Catholic theologian Hans Kung, who is censured by Rome, called it "the worst credibility crisis since the Reformation" in an April 18 open letter to Catholic bishops. Mr. Kung laid out plans for change and charged the pope with having sent "a solemn document" in 2001 to all bishops telling them to keep abuse violations secret.

'The only way to be credible again'

But reform voices also include that of Wolfgang Sturm, a craggy-faced mechanical engineer who for 19 years has been part of a lay Catholic council in Munich. Mr. Sturm says he "is in the church because I believe Jesus Christ's message from 2,000 years ago." Last week at a sprawling Catholic school and sports complex in a Munich suburb, Sturm called, along with some 150 other lay Catholics, for church leaders to fess up clearly.

"I want them to stand in front of the people and say it doesn't matter how much pedophilia there is in the secular world, or in families, or by soccer coaches. I want them to stand and say this crisis is our responsibility and we admit it. It is the only way to ever be credible again," he told one smaller group.

With the priesthood in crisis, many lay council members want to go into the community and try to restore the image of the church. Sturm, like an estimated 70 percent of German Catholics, has "no problem" with married priests and thinks the rules on mandatory celibacy should be changed.

For retired Munich businessman Rudiger Bruggemann, a lifelong Catholic, the crisis has brought to a head the "main question" of his life: "Do you stay in the church or do you leave? I stay because it is the only way to help. You have no voice if you leave," he says. "But at this point, after 74 years, I can no longer take things at face value. Our problems are extensive, and we need the message of Christ, not of institution."

Taking priests down a notch

A comment by Andreas Batloff, a Jesuit priest and editor, on the priesthood in Germany after the abuse crisis, was typical: "The image of the priest as an untouchable holy man has been destroyed. That's a blessing … if we move away from a two-tiered system. The idea that somehow priests are different and better than other people is an idea that is on the way out."

Such views are consistent with the spirit of the Second Vatican Council's emphasis on "the priesthood of all believers." Washington University's Frank Flinn, a Catholic theologian, says the core issue for Catholics is ending "a two-track Christianity in which some Christians in the church are holier than others. That's not what we find in the early church."

In Bavaria, a stronghold of pietistic Catholicism, with both progressive and conservative churches, the story hit like a bomb in January. Previously, many Germans thought "the bad boys were only found in the US," says Father Batloff. "Now it is on German TV in our living rooms." The cases overwhelmed the church's attempt to make it a media-hates-Catholics story. As case after case came to light, causing infighting and a continuing atmosphere of fear and recrimination, many Catholics sat in sackcloth and ashes.

All in the name of God?

In January, the rector of an elite Jesuit boys school in Berlin revealed a history of abuse. That set off a "domino effect," according to Christian Weisner of the international movement We are Church in Munich. Two weeks ago came evidence of horrific abuse in a Bavarian monastery. Then there was the case of priest Peter Hullermann, diagnosed as a pedophile but shuttled around Munich under then-Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict. On April 21, Bishop Walter Mixa of Augsburg, who at first denied slapping boys and using orphanage funds for his personal art collection, offered his resignation to the pope.

As the crisis thickened in winter, the top Protestant figure in Germany, Bishop Margot Kassman, was arrested on a drunken driving charge. Days later, she resigned to protect the dignity of her office. Catholic circles buzzed about why their leaders were not taking similar measures.

"In the Catholic church in Munich, we are still waiting for a signal like this," says Bernhard Beutler, a publisher trained in the Jesuit order. "The hypocrisy of the institutional church is what we talk about … our leaders are there in the name of God! They aren't officials of Deutsche Bank."


With allegations against German priests, more Catholics are recognizing the crisis as a global, not a national, problem. Reformers committed to the church may ultimately change a culture that places priests above parishioners.

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