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Sex abuse in the German Church: Notes on a groundbreaking report

The new study—titled “Child Sex Abuse by Catholic Priests, deacons, and Male Members of Religious Orders in the Authority of the German Bishops’ Conference”—reviews over 38,000 files from 1946 to 2014.

Germany's Cologne cathedral is pictured from the banks of the Rhine River Nov. 25, 2020. (CNS photo/Harald Oppitz, KNA)

Many readers here, I’m guessing, do not have access to, or make a regular habit of reading, dark and dolorous articles in scholarly journals devoted to the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church in Germany. But one such has recently been published and it deserves wider attention, not least since the Church in Germany right now is garnering many headlines for its apparently “progressive” and “synodal” path, while being highly retrograde in dealing with sex abuse.

The multi-authored article is entitled “Child Sex Abuse by Catholic Priests, deacons, and Male Members of Religious Orders in the Authority of the German Bishops’ Conference” by Harald Dressing et al., in the journal Sex Abuse 33 (2021): 274-294. I read this journal regularly for clinical and academic work.

After the well-known 2004 John Jay report in the United States, and the more recent Royal Commission report in Australia, this particular article offers what is only the third major study in the world of sex abuse in the Catholic Church. Throughout the study the authors regularly compare the German findings against those of America and Australia, noting many similarities, but also some unique and significant differences. Here is a summary of some of the essential points.

Number and distribution of abusers:

Overall, the authors conclude that their review of more than 38,000 files (about which more below) from 1946 to 2014 indicates that 4.4% of clerics (N = 1670) have been accused of various forms of abuse. This compares against 4% in the US, and 7% in Australia.

In Germany, the number of cases was at its highest between the 1960s and 1980s, but is far from over today.

Incidents of abuse:

The authors show that “55.7% of accused priests had a single allegation of abuse” (p.276). Most of these were not of a pedophilic nature though we must be careful here because on the basis of the evidence reviewed, forming such a judgment in light of the diagnostic criteria in the DSM-V is not really possible.

Characteristics of the abusers:

The mean age of offenders was 42, the authors report. German offenders differ somewhat from American and Australian in that they tend to be slightly older and to have had a significant history of having themselves been abused. (I would add a caution here that being abused does not clearly and reliably indicate in the wider clinical literature that every victim will automatically go on to become an abuser. Many, in fact, do not.)

Strikingly the authors note that almost all the accused were either priests or monastics; they pointedly note that deacons were almost never accused.

The authors helpfully provide some markers that distinguished the abusers. Given that the abuse problem is far from over in this country or any other, and given that we have plenty of evidence that abusers come in all shapes and sizes and from every conceivable spot on the liturgical and theological spectra, I would encourage Catholics to be on the look-out for the following warning signs that these authors also highlight:

  • priests who report, or seem, overloaded with responsibilities;
  • priests who are isolated;
  • priests who have evident and previously documented social and psychological problems;
  • priests with substance use disorders, especially those involving excessive alcohol consumption.

For further things to watch out for, and the difficulty of detecting abusers even today, I would encourage Catholics to read Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, And Other Sex Offenders (Basic Books, 2020; revised/updated edition) by the American clinical psychologist Anna Salter. It makes for very sobering reading, and upends any smug ideas on the part of everybody who vainly imagines they can always detect who an abuser is.

Characteristics of the victims:

The authors report that the majority (nearly 52%) of victims were male between the ages of 11 and 14; just over 25% of victims were over the age of 15. Male victims were nearly 63% of the total, with nearly 35% female victims; and the rest unspecified in the records reviewed. The average duration of abuse was just shy of 16 months, and many incidents took place either on church property or at home.

Consequences for the victims:

While the data reported is largely from self-reports, and thus not confirmed by a clinician in a diagnostic interview, nonetheless the pattern of suffering for victims and the manifest symptomology, are very similar to what I have seen in victims here in this country. Significant numbers of German victims reported often long-term depression, anxiety, failed relationships (including broken marriages), and suicidal ideation and attempts (some successful). Nearly a quarter of those surveyed by these authors reported symptoms of PTSD, which is not uncommon at all in abuse victims elsewhere.

Characteristics of the abuse:

In an outstanding recent book by the pioneering New York psychotherapist Richard B. Gartner, Healing Sexually Betrayed Men and Boys: Treatment for Sexual Abuse, Assault, and Trauma (Routledge, 2018), which I reviewed here, he notes the many diverse ways in which sexual abuse can take place. The authors of this German study use a similar list to capture the “polymorphous perversity” (to resurrect a splendid old Freudian phrase) of abuse, which includes many things from watching pornography together, to mutual masturbation, to bodily penetration in many forms and with diverse objects. In general the authors show that more than 80% of the abuse involved bodily contact. (The exact breakdown of different types of abuse is in the original report in detail.)

Institutional responses:

To nobody’s surprise, the authors report the response of bishops and superiors to abuse was to move offenders around. Using standard statistical methods of comparison, these authors showed that abusers were moved around on average 4.4 times as compared to 3.6 times for priests who were never accused of abuse.

In some cases, canonical trials or similar proceedings were opened against abusers: the authors report 34% of the time such things were undertaken. In 53% of the cases, however, no proceedings were undertaken. Only 14% of cases were reported to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome.

Institutional resistance to reform:

The authors note that as late as 2016 not all clerics in Germany were trained in best practices to avoid, detect, or report abuse among their numbers. Some were openly resistant to such training and to wider protection efforts. Such people appeared motivated by a resistance to “outside” expertise, leading the authors to note that “an exclusively pastoral-spiritual approach is not sufficient but must be complemented by findings of modern psychology and sexology.”

Data problems:

Like all good scholars, these authors are aware of what they do not know, or cannot know, and of the problems with the existing data. Some problems include the haphazard ways in which records are kept in the German Church (and, I strongly suspect, everywhere else in the Catholic world). Many files are incomplete, sometimes perhaps deliberately so. Some were written in such an abstract, passive, vague, and impersonal way that it was almost impossible to tell who was involved and what actually happened.

More broadly, we still have huge lacunae in the research. The fact that decades into this crisis we still have only slight scholarly research on sex abuse throughout the rest of Europe, and none at all for Central and Southern America, or all of Africa and Asia, reveals alarming gaps in what we know. (The authors do not ask this, but I will: Do Catholics actually want to know about the abuse crisis in the rest of the world, or are we content with our on-going ignorance?)

Steps forward:

Without appearing to have heard of or read my recent book Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power (Angelico Press, 2019), these clinicians come to strikingly similar conclusions to my own as when, for example, they write that “misuse of clerical power by high officials of the Catholic Church…might be considered both as contributor to sexual abuse and an explanation for the inadequate manner in which the Catholic Church was dealing with the problem and its tendency to cover up these offences.”

They also call out, as my book does in more detail than any other treatment of the problem, the structural factors at play here: “structural explanations for clergy abuse have to be considered, namely the unique authority of priests, the…lack of supervision, and a subculture that is defined by…secrecy” as well as a desire to “maintain the status quo.”

While in one way German bishops today want to upend the status quo, in another, as these authors and their pioneering research make painfully clear, they are still mired in a problem bedeviling the entire Church. And far from being progressive, the German Catholic leadership is shown to be retrograde, unreformed, unrepentant, and unserious when it comes to clerical sex abuse. Shame on them and any bishop who continue to let this cancer destroy the Body of Christ.

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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 110 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor at the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne, IN., where he also maintains a part-time private practice in psychotherapy. He is the author and editor of several books, including Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).


  1. “findings of modern psychology and sexology.”


    I’m wondering at what time “modern psychology” switched from “Just give pedopholes some therapy and they’ll be fine,” which used to be what was advised. Before that, maybe the Church authorities *were* using the “findings of modern psychology,” and however much they are to blame now, you can’t claim that they should follow psychology and then fault them for doing so.

  2. “…abusers were moved around on average 4.4 times as compared to 3.6 times for priests who were never accused of abuse.”

    That doesn’t sound like a big difference to me. I think part of that could be that moving every priest around frequently seems to have become another way of covering up abuse. In other words, if frequent reassignments of priests are normal, then no one will be suspicious when any particular priest is moved; it becomes just the usual shell game. They’ll just say, “well, he was needed elsewhere.” To some extent, that may be true as we have fewer and fewer priests to fill vacancies, but it certainly does contribute to the problem.

  3. Sex abuse of youth 11-15 years old seems to be linked to organizations where (mostly) adult males have unmonitored access to these vulnerable (mostly) young males, including churches, Boy Scouts, etc. Why is that and how can it be changed?

    Another question is: Do we see this same level of child sex abuse in non-Catholic religious groups, such as Protestant churches, Jewish synagogues, Muslim mosques, Buddhist temples, etc.? Would be an interesting study to compare what we have experience in the Catholic Church with other like institutions.

  4. I agree with Mr. Saucci on the frequent mvement of priests.

    That policy was employed by the sociopath-sex-abuser Bishop McCarrick when he was Archbishop of Washington, DC.

    I would bet it is the standing policy of the majority of US Bishops, who continue to implement the policies of McCarrick, because they “have the mind of McCarrick.”

  5. A few months ago On CBS Sunday Morning was a segment on homosexual priests. In their reporting with interviews showed that there were 40 to 80 per cent of priests were gay. There was one priest who openly total his congregation and followed his vow of celibacy. The report goes on to say that Cardinals and two previous Pops also were gay and the report also claimed that many clergy have had sexual relations
    I have a son when he was in his early teens was baby siting young boys and made sexual advances on them. He was never charged but found out during his teen years had made many advances on other boys. He went in to work at Walt Diseny World and was fired for sexual advances and was charged and is registered as a pedophile. Now is there any correlation between homosexuality and abuse or a haven for homosexuals to be priests? Since the CBS broadcast this has bothered me as a miss trust of priest not declaring their sexuality when the church says being guy is a sin. I need help to figure this out >

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