The Scandal behind the Scandal – Why the Church Supplied New Victims to the Abusive Priests

by Markus Pohlmann and Kristina Höly

Much has been reported about the abuse in the Catholic Church and there are now numerous excellent studies on it. The Catholic Church is finally responding. Though hesitant, as became discernable at the end of the four-day crisis-summit in the Vatican, the Pope after all officially warned that the cover-up of the acts of abuse in the Catholic Church must be put to an end. Still, it remains a riddle why the Church did not simply reassign the suspected priests to administration or a convent, but often into new churches – where they again had access to children, to potentially new victims. Sometimes there were even exchanges between the dioceses, according to the motto: I take your problem case, if you help me with another problem or with my problem case. That’s the scandal behind the scandal.

source: Pixabay

What lies behind when brutal crimes in legal organizations remain undetected or systematically covered up for a long time? Can one blink at it or leave it unpunished when children are sexually abused, one after the other? The horror of it often obscures the need for explanation that one bumps into, if one wants to answer how this can be possible. What lies behind, is often not the moral failure of individuals, according to our assumption, but a firmly anchored, informal self-regulation of the organization. It is the collective deviance behind the individual, which also comes to the fore in the case of the Catholic Church.

It is beyond question that the acts of abuse in the Catholic Church is a structural problem. The results of the study by Dreßing, Dölling, Hermann et al., commissioned by the German Bishops’ Conference, have impressively demonstrated this. The evaluation performed by the research group on personal and reference files of a total of 38,156 clerics from 27 dioceses in 1946 – 2014 shows that clues to allegations of sexual abuse of minors were found on 1,670 clerics, a share of 4.4%. The number of those affected added up to 3,677 children and adolescents – 62.8% of them were boys and 34.9% girls. On average, 2.5 victims were affected by one accused, approximately 42.3% of whom were “multiple offenders” (Dreßing et al 2018: 5). The impressive database already shows that the cases of abuse are in no way to be regarded as a misdemeanor by a single rotten apple, but point to deviant processes within the institution of the Catholic Church.

source: Pixabay

The findings of the study are also interesting with regard to the handling of the misdeeds: all in all, the Church highly restrains itself in terms of sanction measures against the accused. Against more than half of those accused of sexual abuse of minors (53%), no canon law procedure was initiated (ibid., P. 294). Even less frequently was a report sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Vatican (ibid., P. 296). The same holds true for criminal charges, with only 19.4% of the criminal charges being filed by representatives of the Catholic Church (ibid., P. 297). In most cases, family members or those affected put forth the complaint themselves. Equally hesitant was the initiation of the proceedings. Hence it takes, between the first misdeed and the initiation of proceedings, an average of more than 13 years in criminal charges and even 22 years in church proceedings (ibid., P. 298). In view of the seriousness of the offenses, it is also shocking that more than 1/4 (27.2%) of the internal proceedings ended with no sanctions, and what is from a canon-law point of view very harsh sanctions (e.g. dismissal from the priesthood) were very rare (ibid., P. 295). Instead, a system seemed to have been established which, in addition to sanctions such as early retirement or leave of absence, operated mainly on the basis of reassignments and made it possible to get rid of the “problem cases” in the short term: the study revealed that diocesan priests accused of sexual abuse of minors were reassigned more frequently within the diocese (on average 4.4 times) than those who were not accused (on average 3.6 times) – the situation is similar for the reassignments between dioceses (ibid., p. 304). Almost 1/5 of the intra-diocesan and international shifts of the accused and about a 1/4 of the inter-diocesan shifts were explicitly related by the dioceses themselves to sexual abuse (ibid., P. 306). The researchers conclude from the data that “the more frequent reassignments of the accused […] were not accidental, but were based on a certain pattern in a statistically significant sense ” (ibid.). There was also evidence that “the majority of these reassignments or shifts were not accompanied by appropriate information from the host community or diocese about the particular accusation or the potential risks of recidivism associated with the change” (ibid., P. 9). However, in each case the receiving diocese opted for transparent documentation of the accusation in 91% of cases (ibid., P. 308). While the majority of the sanctions imposed appear to be light as a whole, the findings also reveal that by placing the accused in a largely unsuspecting environment, those who are responsible accepted the potential risk posed by the accused. In the end, this “sanctioning practice” contributed to the fact that new victims were not infrequently supplied to the perpetrators.

The morally appelling nature of the misdeeds stands in contrast to the established practice of reassignments and cover-up in the Catholic Church. If one assumes that there are no sadists in the church administration and hierarchy who enjoy the abuse of children, informal norms and interpretive routines must have established themselves, which made the ignorance of the consequences of a reassignment possible in the first place. The simple assumption that this was only a deliberate strategic act by the Church’s decision-makers, in our view, underestimates the morally stimulative nature of the misdeeds and overestimates the cynicism of the Church leaders. We want to bring three additional explanatory offers into play here:

  1. Autonomy of the Church: The Catholic Church perceives itself as an autonomous institution overriding the secular authorities. Therefore, if there is misconduct in the Church, there is no direct access to the state and state executive for the Church. Rather, it pursues its own norms of nondisclosure (“secretum pontificium”, papal secret) in legal and administrative proceedings, the violation of which is punishable. The Church’s top brass process themselves, because only they are able to maintain the sacred order. Likewise, within its doctrine, derived from the sacrament, the Church conveys that only church representatives can judge sin and misconduct and impose appropriate sanctions, such as confession. For example, when the cases of abuse have become public, it is only at a time when the Pope or the Curia has feared for the power and reputation of the Church in society that first steps have been taken towards the criminal use of the misdeeds. In the case of the US, however, only in isolated cases and with a lag of long intervals have actions been taken (Formicola 2004, 2011, Plante 2004, Wasserman 2017). In this collective mindset, the sacred order of the Catholic Church that is to be protected stands far above the misconduct of individuals, and in some cases even if one himself fell victim to this misconduct.
Monastery, source: Wikimedia Commons

In a discussion between Doris Wagner, a former nun and victim of abuse, and Cardinal Schönborn from Vienna, which was recorded by  Bayerischer Rundfunk  on 6 February, 2019 on television, there was such an interpretation par excellence.

Doris Wagner: “My superiors represent for me the place of God, who are commissioned by the Church, in a community that is recognized by the Church. God has called me into this fellowship, that is, whatever they ask of me comes from Him and is somehow good at it. […] And I believed that, I was sure of that. That always worked. Until the moment when a priest stood in my room, stripped me and raped me. That’s when I knew: that does not make sense anymore. (…) Why does God allow that? “(…)”My first impulse was: I can never tell anyone, and the most important thing is that no one ever learns, because otherwise people would doubt the Church. […]Those who are in charge will feel the same way, if one tells them about it. The most important thing is that nothing happens to the Church. And that comes naturally with people because the Church is their home and nobody wants to lose their home.

This embeddedness into a formal as well as informal system of norms of an organization is a first piece of explanatory brick for the organized crime behind the reassignment and cover-up practice. In the Catholic Church, the integration is not only theologically grounded, but totally inclusive in terms of leadership positions or membership in monasteries – that is, the members are engrossed with life and limb. If motive of membership and purpose of organization are too closely connected, as is customary with churches as “tendency organizations”, rule breaches in favour of the sacred purposes may appear rather accepted.

  1. Atonement and forgiveness: From a sociological perspective, the faithful are the clientele of the Catholic Church organization. They are reached and cared for by the staff of the Church. Believers are part of the organization’s environment. However, much of the activities of any organization, including the Catholic Church, are inward, not outward. For them, the shepherds are far more important than the sheep, especially since their interchangeability – unlike the sheep – is severely limited in the Catholic Church. Priests are appointed to a pastoral service for life. Their replacement, therefore, is – as with once appointed full professors – difficult and entails special justification burdens. In addition, the paternalistic collective mindset of regulative care lays claim of validity not only outwardly, over the sheep, but also internally. In this collective mindset, the concern falls especially upon the shepherds who have committed misconduct and in this regard have been specially examined by God. Too much confidence in psychiatric healing, according to the 2005 John Jay College of Criminal Justice study, was placed by the Catholic Church. The stooped shepherds receive special care on the way of atonement and forgiveness for their sins. In this collective mindset, both the return to the path of Christian virtue and the duty of care on the way there are central elements to explain why the internal displacement and concern for the return of the lost shepherds were habitually anchored in the Catholic Church and at the same time linked to firmly established routines in the millennia-old practice of dealing with misconduct. Not only the opportunity, but also the habit constituted the partly inhuman treatment of misconduct.

    Source: Pixabay
  2. In dubio pro reo: As usual with abusive offenses, the organizations move in a gray area between accusation and defense, between the defamation of innocent people and the failure to take the guilty to account. This gray area is characterized by uncertainty and churches, hospitals, universities, etc., but also courts can often operate only with plausible attributions, especially if children stand up as witnesses or the crimes took place in childhood. It is a dark field of organization that often eludes the light of law enforcement. In the Catholic Church, this plays a special role, because it is also one of their taboo zones, the devil, so to speak. The Pope also sees in abuses the mysterious hand of evil, which did not even spare the innocence of children and made God’s servant a tool of Satan (speech of 24.02.2019).
    Pope Franziskus, source: Wikimedia Commons

    The collective inner resistance to go into the quicksand of this satanic zone is high. People are scared off collectively in front of it, as the motto goes that it cannot be what is not allowed to be. “If in doubt, for the accused” is then an obvious, first approach to dealing with this uncertainty. Therefore, suspicions were more likely to try to compensate for the problem and to stick to the existing pattern of interpretation – to act for the (alleged) good of the faithful and the community and to serve the community and the welfare of the Church. This lowered the willingness and the opportunity to face the reality of the misdeeds and the responsibilities of the Catholic Church.

So it is not a rational choice of actors in the game, which would be easy to explain based on the methodological individualism. If we were to make it clear to any individual outside an organizational context to cover or expose the sexual abuse, the overwhelming majority would choose disclosure as a course of action. It is only the organized, collective context in which the very acts of abuse are embedded that, in our opinion, ensures that their detection is delayed or that the misdeeds first come into the organization’s view for external causes. This moves us in the area of the unintended collective consequences of informal self-regulation. Simply put, everyone did something that nobody wanted on his own.

This does not excuse anything, but merely explains the collective background of habit, justification, and protection of the sacred order in the Catholic Church, which led to the inhuman practice of displacement and concealment. This cannot change the great suffering of the numerous victims, but perhaps it helps – in place of Satan – to keep in focus the characteristics of the Catholic Church.



Dreßing, Harald/ Salize, Joachim/ Dölling, Dieter/ Hermann, Dieter/ Kruse, Andreas/ Schmitt, Eric/ Bannenberg, Britta (2018): Forschungsbericht – Sexueller Missbrauch an Minderjährigen durch katholische Priester, Diakone und männliche Ordensangehörige im Bereich der Deutschen Bischofskonferenz, zuletzt aufgerufen am 13.03.2019.

Finger, Evelyn/ Völlinger, Veronika: Das Ausmaß des Verbrechens, in: Zeit Online [12.09.2018], zuletzt aufgerufen am 13.03.2019.

Formicola, J.R. (2004): The Vatican, the american bishops, and the church-state ramifications of clerical sexual abuse, Journal of Church and State 46(3), 479–502.

Formicola, J.R. (2011): Catholic clerical sexual abuse: Effects on Vatican sovereignity and papal power, Journal of Church and State 53(4), 523–544.

Im Wortlaut: Papst Franziskus zum Schluss der Kinderschutzkonferenz, in: Vatikan News [24.02.2019], zuletzt aufgerufen am 13.03.2019.

John Jay Report (2004): The Nature and the Scope of Sexual Absue of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States 1950-2002, zuletzt aufgerufen am 15.03.2019.

Missbrauch in der katholischen Kirche. Eine Frau kämpft um Aufklärung, in: BR Fernsehen [06.02.2019], zuletzt aufgerufen am 13.03.2019

Opfer kritisieren Ergebnisse von Antimissbrauchsgipfel, in: Zeit Online [25.02.2019], zuletzt aufgerufen am 13.03.2019.

Plante, T.G. (2004): Bishops behaving badly: Ethical considerations regarding the clerigy abuse crisis in the roman catholic church, Ethics & Behavior 14(1), 67–87.

Wasserman, B.D. (2017): Searching for adequate accountability: Supervisory priests and the church´s child sex abuse crisis, Duke Law Journal 66(5), 1149–1189.

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Markus Pohlmann (2019, 22. März). The Scandal behind the Scandal – Why the Church Supplied New Victims to the Abusive Priests. Organizational Crime Stories. Abgerufen am 25. Februar 2024, von

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