Questioned on his reaction to the unveiling of systematic cover-up of priestly sexual abuse in the Oscar-winning film "Spotlight," the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, said that only a number of individuals not motivated by their priestly office but instead "disturbed or immature," have been proven guilty of sexually abusing minors.
"The vast majority of priests have been bitterly wronged by the generalizations regarding abuse," he said, recalling that criminal statistics showed that most sexual abusers were found within the family circle. "They are fathers and other relatives of the victims. One cannot, however, draw the inverse conclusion that most fathers are therefore possible or actual perpetrators."
In the interview with German daily Kölner Stadt Anzeiger on a visit to Germany, he said he had a problem with the word "hush up" being used "far too lightly" with reference to bishops and sexual abuse cases.
"For me hushing something up means deliberately preventing a recognized criminal offense from being punished or not preventing a further offense from occurring," Müller said. "Now, as we all know, in past decades the state of knowledge regarding sexual abuse was very different from that of today. Unfortunately, no one had their eye on the long-term consequences of sexual abuse in those days, as, thank God, we have today. Seriously admonishing the perpetrator was often thought -- somewhat naively perhaps -- to be enough."
Great advances had been made in the field of human sciences, Müller pointed out and therefore the way of dealing with perpetrators and victims has greatly changed. The church needs to recognize that a paradigm shift has occurred regarding sexual abuse "behind which there is no going back," he said.
Covering Climate Now: NCR joins more than 250 news outlets in a weeklong collaboration of climate change coverage. Learn more
"First and foremost is justice for the victims, their suffering and giving them back their dignity," he said. "The preventative measures bishops' conferences have laid down are also decisive, however."
The interviewer asked Müller if the Catholic church has mastered the sex abuse crisis.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is the final tribunal for priestly sexual abuse cases, has acted with "the greatest responsibility" since becoming responsible for those cases, Müller replied. It guarantees a fair procedure "by which the perpetrator also has the right to be listened to and to defend himself. There are persons who have been unjustly accused and who, according to their own reports, have been through hell."
When he was reminded that this also applies to victims whose abuse has been proven, Müller said, "Their suffering is terrible. But the perpetrators must take the responsibility for that and not innocent men only because they are close to them professionally."
Meanwhile, Jesuit Fr. Klaus Mertes, the whistleblower who first unveiled the abuse in the Jesuit College in Berlin during his tenure as headmaster in 2010, has called for Müller to step down.
Bishops who contribute towards covering up abuse cases should be removed from episcopal office or step down, Mertes told the Kölner Stadt Anzeiger.
According to Mertes, when Müller was Bishop of Regensburg from 2002-2012, he ignored the German bishops' conference's guidelines which recommended that priests sentenced for sexual abuse of minors should never again be allowed to work with children or young people and reinstalled a priest in a parish who had served a prison sentence for abuse.
"Instead of stepping down, Bishop Müller, who covered up and obscured sexual abuse when he was in the highest position in the church in his diocese, has climbed the hierarchical ladder just like that," Mertes said. "… He still continually speaks of 'malicious press campaigns' against the Catholic church. Not a sign of remorse and certainly not of a willingness to deal with the structural problems that the church has in connection with abuse. For him it is just the case of a few evil churchmen but otherwise everything is in order in the church and can remain as it always was."
"In my opinion, that is intolerable -- above all, intolerable for the victims," Mertes continued. "How can this man, who is the head of the Congregation finally responsible for abuse, of all things, ever again be credible?"
[Christa Pongratz-Lippitt is the Austrian correspondent for the London-based weekly Catholic magazine The Tablet.]