Details of Schoenstatt founder abuse and coercion allegations emerge

CNA Staff, Nov 5, 2020 / 12:05 pm (CNA).-  A Church historian has published some details regarding the allegations of abuse made against  Fr. Josef Kentenich, founder of the Schoenstatt ecclesial movement. The movement has rejected claims that its founder engaged in sexual abuse, while in July a German bishops announced that a commission would review the priest’s beatification process.

Historian Alexandra von Teuffenbach has published the first of two volumes in a history of the Schoenstatt movement and allegations that Kentenich, who is being considered for beatification, manipulated and coerced community members into sexually inappropriate conduct.

The first volume focuses on the life of Sister Giorgia Wagner, a member of the community who died in 1987. Wagner was assigned to ministry in Chile during her time in the community.

“When Fr. Kentenich visited Chile after the Second World War, in 1947, he abused her and deposed her as provincial superior,” von Teuffenbach wrote in a letter to Vatican analyst Sandro Magister, which Magister published Nov. 2.

“After many months, in a heartbreaking letter, Sister Giorgia described to the superior general not so much the abuse as the effects it had produced. She told how she had tried to oppose the abuses of Fr. Kentenich, who however told her: ‘The ‘Vater’ can do it!’ (in German the word ‘Pater’ is used to indicate a religious, but Kentenich called himself ‘Vater,’ like the father of a family),” von Teuffenbach added.

The historian provided Magister quotes from a letter written by Wagner to another sister in the community:

“I have realized that we are all slaves to him and that no one is completely free with him. Some sisters have made comments to me about when we are with Fr. Kentenich and we are completely under his magic and his power. Why does he treat us this way? […] Why does he preach the most beautiful virginity, both spiritual and physical, and take all liberties with us?,” Wagner wrote.

“We are allowed to speak with him only while kneeling. Then he takes both hands and pulls us very close to him. He has done this repeatedly with me. In this way one enters into close contact with his body,” the sister added.

von Teuffenbach said that when Wagner’s allegations became known in the community, “Fr. Kentenich did not deny anything but publicly stated that Sister Giorgia was ‘possessed,’ ordering her to retract. Later he said she was suffering from gout, thyroid disease, ‘menopause.’ The latest accusation was that she was mentally ill.”

The historian’s letter to Magister cited testimony from other sisters in the Schoenstatt community, who described being manipulated, coerced, or humiliated by Kentenich, with sexual overtimes in some cases.

Sisters apparently sent testimony to the Trier diocese, which considered the priest’s cause for beatification. Two wrote that:

“One of us went through this: she had to kneel in front of him and was supposed to call him ‘father.’ When she hesitated and he repeated his request, still unanswered because it went against her feelings, he nudged her until she – albeit reluctantly – did what he told her. The other went through something else: she was told to kneel in front of him, while he was sitting on a chair, and to put her face in his lap.”

According to Magister, the postulator of Kentenich’s cause for beatification said in October that he had not yet completed studying the documents von Teuffenbach studied and cited in her book. The documents themselves come the archives of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which were opened to scholars this summer.

Kentenich was born in 1885 and ordained a priest in 1910. In 1914, he founded a new ecclesial movement in a chapel in Schoenstatt, Germany.

The Holy See reportedly began to receive reports from alleged victims of the priest in the early 1950s, and dispatched an apostolic visitator, or Vatican observer, to assess the situation. According to von Teuffenbach, Kentenich was sent to the United States after that visitation, but no reforms of the community were subsequently enacted.

Kentenich went to the U.S. in 1951, and was permitted to return to Germany in October 1965. He died three years later. A beatification process for the priest began in 1975.

In July 2, Juan Pablo Catoggio, International President of the Schoenstatt Work, issued a statement on the allegations

“We firmly reject the accusation that Joseph Kentenich was guilty of sexual abuse of members of the Institute of the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary.”

“His behavior toward other persons – especially women – was always marked by a pronounced reverence and esteem, as well as by the principle of physical integrity, which he also impressed upon his communities.”

“That there were accusations from the ranks of the Sisters of Mary is not new to us. Fr. Kentenich himself gave a detailed account of his actions to his superior after an accusation became known. In this context, however, there was no mention of sexual abuse, neither literally nor in content,” Catoggio said, citing the return of Kentenich to a leadership role in Schoenstatt as evidence the Vatican rejected the charges against him.

Catoggio said that before a beatification process can begin, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith must issue a “nihil obstat” based on its files. Any “well-founded suspicion of moral misconduct” would have prevented this, but the CDF granted the “nihil obstat.”

“If doubt regarding the moral integrity of the Schoenstatt founder would have remained, his exile would not have finished and the Vatican would have not published a nihil obstat to open his process of beatification,”  Catoggio said in a separate statement.

Bishop Stephan Ackermann of the German diocese of Tier announced a commission of historians to review the beatification process July 7.

It will be the task of the commission “to reconcile the newly found material with what has already been gathered and evaluated from other archives by the previous commission. At the end of their work, the commission – including the results of the previous commission – will write a report in which a statement will also be made about the personality and spirituality of Fr. Josef Kentenich as depicted in the collected documents,” a diocesan statement said in July.

Catoggia said his community welcomed the work of the commission.

On July 8, he wrote to Schoenstatt community members, saying that “we very much welcome this decision of the bishop, since in this way the clarification of the questions regarding the person and actions of Father Kentenich.”

“We understand that the Schoenstatt Family throughout the world expects initiatives from us that respond to the many justified questions, confusions and demands for transparency. You rightly expect that the history of Father Kentenich, the history of Schoenstatt, and the history of the Sisters be more openly and transparently processed and communicated to the Schoenstatt Family,” Catoggio said.

“We recognize that we have held back for too long out of consideration and for the protection of persons and communities,” he added.

The Schoenstatt movement, which now includes priests, consecrated women, and lay involvement, is active in 42 countries, and focused on spiritual formation and Marian spirituality.

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