The terrible things that have happened in Catholic schools and other institutions have left their victims traumatised for life. Now we look closer at this story from the victims’ perspective. We spoke to child and adolescent psychologist Jörg Fegert in Berlin.
Professor Fegert, in 2004 the Vatican produced some guidelines to prevent child abuse and you helped to draw up those guidelines, but up to now not much has happened; are you disappointed?
“Of course there is disappointment. At that time, those of us who served on that board of international experts had hoped that things would proceed a lot faster. But nevertheless, you can say that at least now, many things have been brought up and the church has started very slowly and very hesitantly to face up to these questions. For those who are effected, who for years did not dare to bring up the subject, who ran up against a wall of silence, this is a very important moment. You see, for example, how the hotline set up by the Catholic church is now accepted and if you take into consideration that many people concerned are still willing to deal with their church, then I think you can tell that this is a very important process.”
“At the Easter Mass Cardinal Angelo Sodano said the Roman Catholic Church wouldn’t be swayed by – quote – “petty gossip”. That was, of course, seen by the victims as a slap in the face; at the very least they had expected an apology. From a therapy point of view, how important is such an apology? Is it therapeutically necessary or simply just a empty gesture?”
“As in everyday life, so it is with therapy. In the context of children and young people, the area in which I work, it depends whether things are really seriously felt and meant. An apology when it is just a gesture is not enough, in my opinion. But what I think is very, very important is the fact that these events are being discussed in public, that a big and powerful institution is confronted with the negative outcome of its deeds. Sometimes I think about South-Africa, where I guess a civil-war could be averted by setting up the truth-commission. It didn’t end the victim’s trauma, it can’t really heal, but it led to the fact that many things were discussed and much hatred could be channelled, because the victims and the perpetrators met within a controlled framework. There can’t be just a formal apology, without even saying what it is for, that the victims are invited in and this gesture comes down from on high. I think one should first of all listen to what the victims have to say.”
“In Berlin there is a discussion forum on the subject of child abuse, which you are part of. There has been major debate about who should participate. What do you think we can expect from such a forum?”
“If you are a pessimist: nothing. If you are an optimist – which I am – rather a lot. Of course the forum is, in principle, only a gesture. A board in which nearly 60 people and organisations are participating cannot be properly effective. But it’s important to make the political statement: that we got the message, we see the problem. Then we will have to set up workshops to deal with this. I think it was a very important step that an independent government delegate is included. That person has already dealt with this problem a lot when she was a minister. So I think there is a lot of commitment. It is also important to improve research on security measures, on transparency in institutions, on a monitoring system, that juveniles turn to. We also have to make improvements in the volunteer field, to answer the question of what happens in sport camps, in boy-scout camps. Are the questions being asked what should be – how are things for the children? We have to deal with that. The discussion forum can be perhaps be only a gesture or there may be a lot comes out of it. It’s not clear yet, and I think also the public, the media, will watch all those participating at this and see what they are doing.”
“The cases of sexual abuse happened years ago, some of them are already too old for prosecutions. Now politicians are demanding the laws be changed, to extend the statue of limitation. Do you think that makes sense?”
“I am no lawyer and very often the response to a political problem is just to pass new laws. But I don’t think that would help in this situation. I worked as consultant, I have been consulted as an expert in this field and if the crimes date back a long time it is very hard to bring individual cases to court. This leads to uncertain acquittals, because the doubts remain and there is the principle: unless it proved beyond doubt, you must acquit, but these acquittals are in fact only grist for the mill of the abusers. I also don’t think that we should focus too much on claims for damages, cause we know from German history, with concentration camp victims, that questioning of the victims by psychiatrists like me, only served to re-traumatise them. To compensate suffering with money is a very hard thing to do and I would strongly advise against it. For me the future is important – what can society do in order to make schools safe havens, to make sure that children feel OK in their sports clubs, how can we get more public alertness. There is also a legal field almost nobody is talking about, that is employment law. According to the law, somebody can do something bad in one job and then leave and will get a good job reference and go on to a job somewhere else, because employers, by law, are not allowed to mention such things in the reference that they give.”
“Finally, returning to the Catholic church: Benedict XVI went to Malta where he met some victims and prayed with them. That’s not exactly what they were hoping for . We’ve already talked about apologies – but what else could the Catholic church do? Would financial compensation be appropriate for example?”
“I have already expressed my objections to compensation. I think the church could do a lot to support the victims in all those areas where therapy and focused help is necessary. But the church can also invest in the education of priests and of voluntary workers. It can think about how it’s possible to ask for transparency on one hand and for absolute obedience on the other. There are many subjects that should be discussed internally. The current Pope met with us, the experts who advised on this, (in 2004) and he said very clearly that such crimes are intolerable and will damage the reputation of the church and also would mean that people would not turn to the church for help. Í think this has to be made clear and in this field many things have to change within the church.”