What surprised him the most? The historian Thomas Großbölting puts it in a nutshell: “How many people have known about the cases of abuse over the years.” The knowledge extended from bishops, HR managers and Christian laypeople to public prosecutors. On behalf of the diocese of Münster, Großbölting worked in a team of five for more than two years on a study on sexual abuse. It was not just a question of how many cases there were in the diocese between 1945 and 2020, but also whether the church was partly to blame.

And yes, Großbölting is convinced that the church system was the perpetrator. The priest as a cleric was exaggerated in the Catholic Church and, as the consecrated follower of Christ, was presented as a quasi-saint. “The love of God and neighbor was perverted,” says Großbölting when the study was presented on Monday. Young victims of abuse between the ages of 10 and 14, often altar boys, in particular, were unable to compete with the system. You weren’t believed. Many were traumatized and only spoke after many years.

The researchers also see a massive problem in the system of diocese leadership. Bishops should be judges, superiors and pastors at the same time. That had fatal consequences. Catholic sexual morality also encouraged crime. The number of accused priests and victims of abuse is therefore significantly higher than known. According to this, there were approximately 200 clerics in the diocese of Münster in the 75 years who were guilty and at least 610 underage victims. The number of unreported cases is considerably higher. The researchers assume 5000 to 6000 victims.

Großbölting also contradicted the description of Bishop Reinhard Lettmann, who died in 2008, who had spoken of individual cases. There have been cases of abuse across the board in all deaneries of the diocese in its territory in North Rhine-Westphalia and around Vechta in Oldenburger Münsterland (Lower Saxony). Many would have known about it, said Großbölting. He spoke of a cover-up.

The researchers were able to prove decades of failure in diocese leadership and the frustration of criminal prosecution in various cases. The focus was on the three bishops Joseph Höffner (term of office: 1962-1969), Heinrich Tenhumberg (1969-1979) and Reinhard Lettmann (1980-2008). Again and again, delinquent priests were only transferred – and turned back into perpetrators. For others, the diocesan leadership appealed to the public prosecutor. Preliminary investigations were dropped, trials turned into a farce. One perpetrator fled to South America. Another fled to Austria.

The researchers accuse the current bishop Felix Genn of not having shown the necessary severity as a superior towards repentant offenders. Genn does not want to comment on the study until Friday. Grobölting already praised the cooperation. As promised, his team was able to work independently. In addition to evaluating the file archives, the scientists conducted interviews with more than 60 people affected.