Munich diocese faces "tsunami" of abuse claims

German task force uncovers shocking amount of sexual abuse

Published March 19, 2010 12:41PM (EDT)

Pope Benedict XVI's former diocese in Munich says it is facing new allegations of physical and sexual abuse on a daily basis.

"It is like a tsunami," Elke Huemmeler, head of the diocese's newly founded sexual abuse prevention task force, told The Associated Press.

Huemmeler estimates there are about 120 cases on the record to date, around 100 of them at the nearby Ettal monastery boarding school, run by Benedictine monks. She stresses, however, her role is not to deal with the old cases, but help set up the prevention program.

On Friday, her new Task Force on Sexual Abuse Prevention, now officially commissioned and backed by Archbishop Reinhard Marx, began its work.

By November, it plans to put forth a comprehensive plan to fight abuse in Roman Catholic church institutions. It is the first of its kind in the German church, which has been shaken to its foundation by new allegations of sexual and physical attacks on minors since the beginning of the year.

When the first abuse cases broke at Ettal about three weeks ago, Huemmeler immediately sat down with four or five colleagues to brainstorm and find a way out of the "disaster", as she calls it.

"I don't think I have ever seen us that shocked," Huemmeler, head of the diocese's social work unit, said about the church leadership.

Huemmeler's group reflects a belief that only through airing the events of the past and increasing transparency future abuse can be prevented.

Marx has said he wants to bring out everything into the open and also named a commission to comb through old records to find out who knew what and when.

The diocese now has three specialists to listen to and investigate victims' allegations of abuse, Huemmeler says. The third was named just this week because the workload has grown immensely in such a short time.

The first step is to take stock of what has happened, to analyze patterns and then find ways to prevent sexual abuse by making people look more closely.

When educators start doing unusual things like taking kids for walks or having them over for dinner "a red light has to start blinking," she says.

Huemmeler says several institutions have been affected by the abuse allegations but did not name them. The diocese press office also would not give names, numbers or details at this point, citing the ongoing investigations.

The diocese runs a total of about 20 schools, 570 child care facilities and numerous youth groups.

Huemmeler is familiar with some individual cases, however. She mentioned a man who was abused as a child in the 1970s in a home for handicapped kids. He contacted the diocese to tell his story just this week -- again leaving the church leadership shocked and ashamed.

"It is all really terrible, but we are going to listen to everything," Huemmeler says.

Last week, the diocese confirmed the case of a priest who was transferred in 1980 to Munich. That came after three sets of parents alleged he had abused their children in the northwestern city of Essen, the diocese there said. The priest underwent therapy, but then returned to work with youngsters. He was convicted of abuse in 1986.

Pope Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was Archbishop of Munich and Freising at the time of the priest's transfer from Essen to Munich for therapy in 1980. The diocese has said Ratzinger knew about the transfer but not about the priest's continued work in Bavarian congregations after he assumed his duties at the Vatican.

Erwin Wild, then spokesman of the diocese's council of priests, said he and his colleagues were not informed by Ratzinger that the priest was an offender, which he thinks was wrong.

"We should have known," Wild said.

By Verena Schmitt-roschmann

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Catholicism Germany Sexual Abuse