Pope’s former diocese in Munich takes on “tsunami” of abuse cases

By Verena Schmitt-roschmann, AP
Friday, March 19, 2010

Munich diocese faces “tsunami” of abuse claims

MUNICH — Pope Benedict XVI’s former diocese is facing new allegations of physical and sexual abuse on a daily basis, the head of its new sex-abuse task force said Friday.

“It is like a tsunami,” Elke Huemmeler, who leads the diocese’s newly founded 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 a comprehensive program to fight abuse in Roman Catholic institutions. It is the first of its kind in the German church, which has been deeply shaken by 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 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.

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 a short time.

The first step is to take stock of what has happened, 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 abuse allegations but did not name them. The diocese also would not give names, numbers or details at this point, citing the ongoing investigations.

Huemmeler is familiar with some individual cases, however. She mentioned a man who was abused as a child in the 1970s at a home for handicapped kids. He contacted the diocese just this week.

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. 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.

A psychoanalyst who said he treated the recently suspended Rev. Peter Hullermann for 12 years after the initial allegations of sexual abuse said the priest resisted the idea of having to go through therapy and saw himself as a victim.

“He never accepted these conditions,” Werner Huth told the AP in a telephone interview. “It was impossible to use certain forms of therapy with him that I believed were necessary.”

Huth had wanted Hullermann to stop drinking and to have a supervisor with him at all times, but the priest would accept neither.

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.

Sex abuse allegations have surfaced in several other countries in recent weeks.

In neighboring Switzerland Friday, the Basel diocese admitted that it hired a priest in 1971 knowing that he had sexually abused children. It said it made an unjustifiable assessment when it hired Father Gregor Mueller, knowing he was dismissed from a previous post in Germany for sexual abuse.

In Austria, a man alleged that he was sexually and physically abused in 1978 as a 14-year-old student at a boarding school affiliated with a Benedictine monastery in the western province of Tyrol.

The man, now 46, told public broadcaster ORF that he and others had their genitals groped by a priest as they slept in the dormitory. He said that, when he reported the incident, he was slapped and had to promise not to tell his parents or anyone else.

In Italy, the bishop of the northern diocese of Bolzano apologized to victims and promised to go to prosecutors with any cases that rest within the statue of limitations.

Bishop Karl Golser issued an apology late Thursday, after several victims came forward alleging physical and sexual abuse at a Bolzano convent and church school in the 1950s and 60s. He also launched an Internet campaign to urge more victims to come forward.

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