EKD abuse study

25.01.2024 represents a turning point in the Protestant church's self-image: The new EKD study (EKD: Protestant Church in Germany) shows that abuse, which is often dismissed as a Catholic problem or a problem for society as a whole, also affects Protestant churches. Negligent or deliberate self-immunization led to the protection of perpetrators, covering up violence and ignoring the victims. Detlev Zander, the spokesperson for those affected by abuse from the participation forum, speaks of a "pitch-black day" for the EKD. The study shows that cases of abuse are no exception within a Protestant church with high moral standards. Rather, they are facilitated by abuse structures that did not arise by chance, but are constitutively linked to the cultural, theological and organizational self-image of the church.

The study

"For the first time, the study provides an empirical basis for understanding abuse, structures and constellations that promote abuse, as well as how those affected are treated within the Protestant church."

For the first time, the study provides an empirical basis for understanding abuse, structures and constellations that promote abuse, as well as how those affected are treated within the Protestant church. The five sub-studies focus on different aspects:

In sub-project A, specific Protestant characteristics that can encourage abuse are being investigated. Sub-project B identifies organizational and systemic factors in the Protestant church that promote or prevent abuse. Sub-project C documents the perspectives of those affected. Sub-project D is dedicated to the constellations of danger and crimes to which those affected were exposed. Of particular interest here is whether characteristics of the accused can be identified. Sub-project E determines key figures on the frequency of assaults and sexualized violence suffered.

The study was carried out by the interdisciplinary and independent research association "ForuM - Research on the processing of sexualized violence and other forms of abuse in the Protestant Church and Diaconia in Germany". Some of those affected were involved as co-researchers and were interviewed on numerous occasions about their experiences of abuse. The EKD is funding this study with 3.6 million euros.

Cases of abuse of minors at the time of the offense were investigated. The range of perpetrators was not limited to pastors, but included all church professions. A comparison of the case numbers with those of the study "Sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests, deacons and male members of religious orders in the area of the German Bishops' Conference" on the Catholic Church is not possible because the sources available for the Protestant study were limited due to the nature and organization of the dossiers and a lack of personnel and time resources. Only a disciplinary file analysis could be carried out for 19 out of 20 member churches. Only one regional church has fully evaluated and provided the personnel files. In addition, the study only refers to minors at the time of the offense. On this basis, 1259 suspects and 2225 victims were identified. The researchers assume that this means that at least 60% of perpetrators and around 75% of victims are not recorded. Even if extrapolations are difficult from a scientific perspective, an extrapolation comes to the result of 9355 persons affected by abuse and 3497 accused persons. Two-thirds of those affected are male, as are the perpetrators in almost 100% of cases.

Protestant abuse

These figures are staggering in themselves. The study proves that abuse in the church is a church-specific, cross-denominational phenomenon.

"However, the factors and reasons that promote sexual assault and abuse are specific to a particular denomination."

However, the factors and reasons that promote sexual assault and abuse are specific to a particular denomination. The comparison between East and West Germany shows that the church structures are more influential than the respective political conditions. Three types of Protestant specifics are in the foreground:

Organizational and systemic factors

The EKD's self-image as a fundamentally participatory, hierarchically flat and progressive church led to a systematic ignoring of its own precarious situation. The problems were seen as specifically Catholic. When it comes to abuse, there is a striking divergence between how the institution perceives itself and how others perceive it. Federalism in particular leads to a lack of transparency in procedures and responsibilities, which has become a "pillar of abuse" in the eyes of those affected. Contrary to the church's self-image, the analysis identifies "participation" as a key concept of systemic factors that promote abuse.

"In the presentation of the study, there was explicit mention of the downright coquetry with its own participatory and federalist structures."

On the one hand, participation stands for the justified demand of many of those affected to be heard and included in the design of studies, implementation of measures and establishment of effective prevention concepts. However, they are often not seen as competent partners, but are reduced to victims who need pastoral care. At the same time, participation served to legitimize the bureaucratic procrastination of the reappraisal processes: In the presentation of the study, there was explicit talk of downright coquetry with the country's own participatory and federalist structures. In most cases, the church's reactions were aimed at de-escalating the individual situation in order to block out the question of the structural violence of the organization itself. Overall, the church structures and procedures appear inconsistent and non-transparent to those affected.

Theological factors

"Abuse escapes prosecution because it is precariously shifted to the theological level of questions of faith and salvation."

A mechanistic view of the connection between guilt and forgiveness is particularly problematic. Those affected are prematurely confronted by the church with the desire for forgiveness, whereby the process of recognizing the suffering, repentance and reparation is also skipped by financial recognition. Abuse escapes prosecution because it is precariously shifted to the theological level of questions of faith and salvation. This blocks the concern of those affected to initiate a serious and critical examination of the conditions that enable sexualized violence in church structures and contexts instead of pastoral processing. As the documented cases show, those affected who do not meet the church's expectations and push for change were discredited and pathologized.

According to the study, the traditional social and spiritual power imbalance of Protestant pastors, who have a high degree of interpretative power over the congregation, also proved to be precarious: Those affected and those in the know had and still have difficulties countering this authority. This is aggravated by the church's self-image of an imagined, family-like ideal community, which leads to a patriarchal, conflict-avoiding atmosphere that is closed off from the outside world. Those affected are excluded for the sake of peace if they do not fit in with the church's idea of conflict resolution. Institutionally distanced people in particular find it difficult to participate in shaping reappraisal and prevention processes.

Spiritual abuse, which in many cases precedes sexualized violence, is a particular problem. Those affected suffer spiritual, mental and physical abuse as a result.

Cultural factors

"The vicarage is the symbol and the prominent place where this problem is concentrated."

Over the period of the last 70 years or so, a confusing, contradictory understanding of sexuality can be seen in the Protestant church, which oscillates between tabooing and breaking down boundaries. This leads to problematic ambiguities when it comes to defining boundaries, enforcing professional standards and even just keeping private and professional matters separate. The vicarage is the symbol and the prominent place where this problem is concentrated.

The structural weaknesses escalate the problem because they are in blatant contradiction to the Protestant self-image of moral and cultural superiority over other institutions and religious communities. The positive image of the Protestant church as a safe, child-friendly and cosmopolitan place that protects human dignity and integrity makes it difficult to address the issue of abuse.

No help

In addition to the descriptions of sexualized violence and abuse of power given by those affected, their perception of the church's handling of cases of abuse is particularly shocking: Most of those affected feel that the church's actions are not very helpful. They feel paternalistically incapacitated, pathologized or find that the process has been delayed in church structures.

"The church's failure towards those affected who came forward to the church is documented in the study."

This is all the more bitter because without this commitment on the part of those affected, no institutional awareness of this problem would have arisen at all! The study documents the church's failure towards the victims who reported to the church. In very few cases do those affected want emotional support or pastoral help from the church. Rather, they urge that the abusive structures be uncovered and the perpetrators exposed so that the danger of further abuse can be averted. They do not want to be reduced to their role as victims, but want to contribute their personal experiences constructively to church emancipation processes.

What we can do

It would be cynical towards every single person concerned to relativize the results of the EKD study with regard to the Swiss situation. It is true that the EKS (Protestant Church in Switzerland) does not maintain any diaconal works with church-run hospitals, schools, kindergartens and homes. This would certainly be reflected in the figures in Switzerland. However, it can be assumed that the findings on child and youth work, abuse in the parish and the analysis of cultural and theological specifics that promote abuse also apply in principle to the Protestant Reformed churches.

In any case, the EKD study shows that church words are not what is needed now. The first thing we need now is a willingness to listen to those affected. If the churches really share their concern for change, there is no way around a study that deals centrally with the perspective of those affected and obliges the churches to listen attentively and self-critically. Secondly, the study results show how important external, non-church-based specialist agencies are for those affected and how crucial it is that those affected have a low-threshold point of contact. This need must take precedence over federalist structures. Thirdly, our grassroots democratic, participatory militia structure must no longer be used as a fig leaf to question the feasibility of a study or to blur responsibilities. It would be cynical towards those affected if this demand were to become a bone of contention in church politics between decentralized and centralized forms of organization, professionalization tendencies versus participation models. It is about the awareness of the problem and the vigilance of all those who bear ecclesiastical responsibility for their own systemic and cultural weaknesses.

"The EKS and the member churches are now called upon to come to terms with their history of abuse, to recognize the systemic problem areas and to rectify them."

The EKS and the member churches are now called upon to come to terms with their history of abuse, to recognize the systemic problem areas and to rectify them. They will not be able to do this without those affected helping them. They don't do it for those affected, but with their help for the whole church and the people who want to live together in it. There is no ecclesiastical and theological task that is more important right now.

Picture of Stephan Jütte

Stephan Jütte

Dr. theol.

Leiter Theologie und Ethik
Mitglied der Geschäftsleitung

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