Catholic bishops yank a sex-abuse investigation

So much for transparency. A German investigation into sex-abuse charges dating back decades hits a sizable snag

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published January 10, 2013 4:57PM (EST)

  (Lisa F. Young)
(Lisa F. Young)

Today in irony: Catholic church leaders are having trust issues.

A sweeping independent investigation into sex abuse charges dating back nearly 70 years has screeched to a halt in Germany, because the German Bishops Conference there says "The trust was shattered" between the conference and the Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony. The bishops have now canceled their contract with the institute.

The head of the institute, Christian Pfeiffer, lashed back at the bishops Thursday, citing old-fashioned butt-covering as the cause of the falling out. "The Archdiocese of Munich and Freising clearly demanded that all texts must be submitted to them for approval," he said, "and they made it clear to us that they also had the right to prohibit the publication of texts." He added, chillingly, "They have a requirement that you have to destroy the papers ten years after the conviction of a priest. They kept us in the dark about this, because we agreed in the contract to an analysis of records going back to 1945."

German Bishops' Conference spokesman Matthias Kopp has denied Pfeiffer's charges, saying, "Because the Catholic church is ready to undertake a research project of this kind, it shows how much freedom of research means to it … There has been, to our knowledge, no destruction of documents. A major problem was data protection regulations. It was important to us to clarify how we would be able to anonymize data and keep it safe."

The revelations of sexual abuses that have long plagued the Catholic Church worldwide have grown even broader in scope in the past few years. In 2009, the Dublin Archdiocese Commission issued a bombshell report on the Archdiocese's grotesque mishandling of sexual abuse charges involving "172 named priests and 11 unnamed priests" between 1975 and 2004. It mentioned specifically the "dismay and anger" of the victims toward "their Church, in which they had placed the utmost faith and trust." A 2010 investigation revealed that top Vatican officials, including the future Pope Benedict, turned a blind eye to charges of abuse by Wisconsin's Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, who molested as many as 200 boys over a 24-year period. To give you a ballpark idea of how bad it is, in the past 10 years, the red-faced administration of the Church has been forced to investigate a stunning 4,000 separate cases of global sex abuse, spanning decades. And just last February, the Vatican hosted a symposium on "Healing and Renewal" to directly address policy on how to handle future cases and investigate past abuses – including those made by 600 individuals in Germany in 2010.

In a statement Wednesday, German Bishop Stephan Ackermann assured that the work of the study would continue, noting, "We weren't trying to hold things back. We regret that this project ... cannot be continued and we will have to find a new partner." Reuters reports that Ackermann attempted to deflect criticism of the abrupt break with the institute when he cited that another researcher has already done a report on the abuses in Germany. It also notes that its conclusions were subsequently "lambasted as a whitewash by victims' support groups." Christian Pfeiffer, meanwhile, says the problem is that he wouldn't capitulate to a change in their already set guidelines that would allow the bishops to veto publishing the results of the investigation.

Regardless of the conflicting versions of why the bishops felt the need to part company with the institute, it's a real forehead smacker that during its big healing and renewal meeting a mere 11 months ago, the Vatican issued a directive for "complete openness and transparency on the part of the Church." Right now, this week's crumbling of a sex abuse investigation makes that edict look as futile as asking for complete coherent thought from Karl Rove. Pfeiffer, meanwhile, says he's continuing anyway. He and his researchers are asking victims to contact them so they can produce their own report – without having to answer to any bishops about it first.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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