An independent team of historians was given unprecedented access to archives of the Swiss Catholic Church to investigate cases of sexual abuse within the church. The researchers have now documented 1,002 cases of sexual abuse committed by Catholic clerics, church staff and members of Catholic orders that have occurred in Switzerland since the mid-20th century. They also examined how church officials dealt with cases of abuse and the availability and significance of archive sources. These new findings pave the way for further research.
In 2022, the Swiss Bishops’ Conference, the Conference of Unions of Orders and Other Communities of Consecrated Life (KOVOS) and the Central Roman Catholic Conference of Switzerland (RKZ) commissioned the Department of History of the University of Zurich to shed light on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church since the mid-20th century. A team of four researchers led by professors Monika Dommann and Marietta Meier have now completed the year-long pilot study. The study covered all dioceses in all language regions of Switzerland as well as state-church institutions and Catholic religious orders. In other words, the researchers examined the Swiss Catholic Church as a whole.
With a few exceptions, the project team was able to access the church’s archives without any major hurdles, sifting through tens of thousands of pages of previously secret documents compiled by Catholic Church officials since the mid-20th century. In addition, the researchers held numerous interviews with people affected by sexual abuse and with other parties.
Tip of the icebergThe team of researchers found evidence of a wide range of sexual abuse. The cases range from problematic boundary violations to severe systematic abuse lasting several years. Overall, 1,002 cases were identified, involving 510 accused persons and 921 victims. Thirty-nine percent of victims were female, while 56 percent were male. For the remaining 5 percent, the sex could not be determined from the sources. The vast majority of the accused were men. Seventy-four percent of the documents reviewed during the study concerned sexual abuse of minors. In 14 percent of cases, the victims were adults, while the age of the victims could not be determined in 12 percent of cases.
"The cases we identified are without a doubt only the tip of the iceberg," say Monika Dommann and Marietta Meier. Numerous archives that likely contain further evidence of abuse have yet to be made available, such as archives of religious orders, documents created in the dioceses and the archives of Catholic day schools, boarding schools and children’s homes as well as government archives. In two dioceses, the researchers found evidence that documents had been destroyed. Moreover, there is evidence that not all reported cases of sexual abuse were consistently recorded in writing and subsequently archived. "Given what we know from research on the dark figure of crime, we assume that only a small percentage of cases was ever reported in the first place," say the historians.
Sexual abuse in pastoral workThe study documents cases of sexual abuse for the whole of Switzerland and for the entire period under investigation. It identifies three social spaces with specific power constellations in which sexual abuse occurred. The most prominent of these spaces was pastoral work, in which well over 50 percent of sexual abuse cases took place. Certain elements of pastoral work were particularly affected, including spiritual care (during confession or when seeking guidance), altar service and religious education. This includes priests’ involvement in kids or youth clubs and associations.
According to the study, a second major social space in which sexual abuse took place was the church’s educational and welfare settings, which fulfilled key social functions, especially in the first half of the 20th century. Around 30 percent of analyzed cases of sexual abuse were committed in Catholic children’s homes, day schools, boarding schools and similar institutions. Finally, Catholic religious orders and other communities as well as new spiritual communities and movements made up the third social space (just under 2 percent of cases). Here, the search for sources proved particularly difficult.
Systematic cover-up by the churchUnder ecclesiastical law, sexual abuse of minors has long been a severe criminal offense. "However, our study reveals that ecclesiastical criminal law was hardly ever applied in the cases we investigated. Instead, many cases were kept secret, covered up or trivialized," say the researchers. Church officials would systematically reassign clerics accused of or known to have committed sexual abuse to different posts, sometimes transferring them abroad, to avoid criminal prosecution by secular authorities and enable the clerics to continue working. In doing so, the interests of the Catholic Church and its dignitaries were given precedence over the welfare and safety of parishioners.
This practice didn’t fundamentally change until the 21st century, when more and more scandals about the Catholic Church’s handling of sexual abuse cases came to light. As a result, the Swiss Bishops’ Conference issued guidelines on how to handle and prevent cases of sexual abuse and established professional bodies in the dioceses to deal with reported cases. However, to this day these bodies differ significantly in their approaches, and their level of professionalization also varies.
Further research neededThe pilot project is the first systematic attempt to conduct an academic investigation into the scope and scale of sexual abuse in the Swiss Catholic Church. Fundamental issues concerning access to archives, investigative status and documentation of abuse cases within the Catholic Church as well as previous efforts to examine and prevent such cases have now been addressed. The study provides the basis for further research. The research team believes that future studies need to examine further archives and expand the data. This will make it possible to reach more detailed conclusions about the quantity of sexual abuse that occurred as well as more accurately pinpointing when and where cases arose more frequently.
Among other things, future studies should investigate the role of the state, especially in charitable and educational contexts, as many services in this area are delegated to the church, particularly in predominantly Catholic regions. Finally, a further focus needs to be placed on exploring the elements specific to the Catholic Church that may have abetted sexual abuse in the church, including the church’s views on sexual morals, celibacy, gender roles as well as its ambivalent stance on homosexuality. The characteristics of the Catholic community, which tacitly accepted and partly supported the described dynamics of concealment and denial, also require further investigation. "Statements and reports made by the people affected as well as by contemporary witnesses should be given great consideration in such a process, and the church’s archives should be evaluated in light of these witness statements," say the historians Dommann and Meier.
Publication:Vanessa Bignasca, Lucas Federer, Magda Kaspar und Lorraine Odier: Bericht zum Pilotprojekt zur Geschichte sexuellen Missbrauchs im Umfeld der römisch-katholischen Kirche in der Schweiz seit Mitte des 20. Jahrhunderts. doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.831577
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Historisches Seminar, Universität Zürich
Historisches Seminar, Universität Zürich