What does “coming to terms” with sexualised violence mean?

The challenge for the churches

"The perceptions of victims and those who may be perpetrators - however directly or indirectly - tend to be very different. The victims do not experience the facts or their meaning in the same way as mere observers or those who could have averted or alleviated the suffering. These people are too far apart to see things in the same way."

Judith N. Shklar

"Tradition is often nothing more than a testimony of silence."

Judith N. Shklar

"Therefore, we will gladly say, turning the words of the prayer upside down, which Jesus addresses to God according to the Gospel of St Luke: Lord, do not forgive them, for they know what they are doing."

Vladimir Jankélévitch

1. Passive injustice and passive unfairness

"To think that democratic attitudes and institutions would provide an adequate response to the sense of injustice would be childish, not even plausible. We may have the best possible procedures for consensus-building, but we will not conquer the realm of injustice that way." Does Judith N. Shklar's judgement on liberal-democratic institutions also apply to the church, especially to its Reformation manifestations as the "church of freedom"? As with the political doctrine of ideas, the same applies to ecclesiology: theory and practice go together with difficulty, either because theory fails to recognise reality or because theory leads practice to lose sight of reality. The Jewish-American political scientist and philosopher diagnoses an error in thinking that is found equally in liberalism and in post-Reformation theology: Both view injustice and unfairness as deviations from lawful and just orders and relationships, i.e. from the perspective of power and the powerful. Conversely, Shklar starts from the reality of life for the weak and shows that what appears to be an industrial accident from the perspective of the powerful is an inescapable reality for the powerless. Political liberalism must therefore be based on the two basic social units of the weak and the powerful. What is needed is a "liberalism of fear" that aims to "protect freedom from the abuse of power and the intimidation of the defenceless; for this is precisely what the difference between the two basic units tempts us to do. [...] The liberalism of fear [...] views the abuse of public power in all regimes with equal unease."

Shklar's entire philosophy revolves around the tension between the political idea of liberalism and the reality of injustice and unfairness and also offers a conceptual framework for the theologically and politically pressing question of how the church - with its self-understanding of Christian freedom, love of neighbour and solidarity with the poor, the weak and those in need of protection - could become the scene of intolerable violence. Analogous to the philosophical analysis of the discrepancy between the liberal promise of freedom and participation on the one hand and real political violence on the other, the church must ask itself how the focus of attention of its proclamation and its self-image is compatible with the violence in its institutions that has since been exposed. In contrast to the frequently criticised negative anthropology of sinful creaturely existence, it obviously lacks a critical awareness of the injustice and unfairness in its own institutions. The impression arises that the Church's watchful eyes for injustice and unfairness in the world are hardly ever directed towards its own misdemeanours and failures. This finding is confirmed by some official reactions to the published studies on sexualised violence in the churches, which give the impression that this is a major disaster, similar to a natural catastrophe, and not a home-grown state of violence.

Judith N. Shklar's category of "passive injustice" provides a theoretical perspective on these contradictions. "Being passively unjust does not mean lacking charity. It demands more of us. The saint grants help that goes beyond human rules and even the call of duty; he stands higher than anything that can be called just or right. The passively unjust man is not accused of not having gone beyond the bounds of duty, but of not having recognised that his role as a citizen involves more than ordinary justice demands. The ordinarily unjust man is guilty because he disregards law and custom by actively violating them, and also because he acts unfairly. The passively unjust man, however, does something else; he is simply indifferent to what is happening around him, especially when he becomes an eyewitness to fraud and violence. He fails in his capacity as a citizen. His failure is not due to a lack of common human goodness. When he sees an illegal act or a crime, he simply looks the other way. If he is a public servant, his offence is particularly serious. He is a tyrant who excuses injustice by overlooking it, or an indifferent civil servant who does nothing to mitigate or prevent social disasters. He is the one who always says 'life is unfair' first and forgets the victims. [...] Preventing fraud and violence, if we can, is an act that is incumbent on us as citizens, not an act of humanity." We are passively unjust not only in spectacular cases, but also "when we close our eyes to small everyday injustices, even when we are guided by such harmless motives as not wanting to make a fuss, not wanting to be intrusive or not wanting to disturb the present peace".

Shklar's comments refer to the liberal state, but can also be read as a subtext or counter-text to Karl Barth's "Christian Community and Citizen Community" . This draws attention to a symptomatic addressing problem. Theology traditionally deals with Christian responsibility in the civil community, but is not interested in civil responsibility in the Christian community. Christian attention in the civil community does not correspond to a civil perspective on the Christian community. The dualism of state and church conceals the fact that not only does the state need Christian virtues, but conversely the institutionalised church is also dependent on civic virtues. The philosopher elaborates on the civic virtues that church institutions cannot do without. This has three ecclesiastical-theological consequences: (1.) The Christian ethos of charity goes far beyond civic duties, but does not answer the question of the normative conditions of lawful and just institutions. Therefore, at the institutional level, civic virtues must take precedence over divine commandments. (2.) A Christian-communitarian ethos overlooks the difference between individual or communal morality and institutional ethics, which are based on different subject constellations. It is true that Barth and the Protestant theological social ethics that have been established since the 1970s have consistently emphasised the importance of political freedom, the rule of law and legality. However, in church practice, the morality of the faith community continues to overshadow the institutional ethics of liberal subjects. (3.) All appeals to a Christian morality of charity, solidarity and the option for the weak come to nothing because they address the singular moral subject, but not the functionaries and role bearers in church institutions. The Christian ethos of loving one's neighbour has not failed, but offers no relevant normative standard. Of course, the references following Judith N. Shklar are no substitute for careful analysis and do not provide a solution to the problem. But a serious church-theological reflection on institutional conditions and self-misunderstandings cannot avoid the theoretical framework of interpretation outlined above.

2. Perspectives on sexualised violence in the church context

2.1 The institutional dimension of sexualised violence

Violence is a practice that brings itself to a standstill because it negates and destroys its own conditions. It attacks its social foundations, which are based on the reciprocity and mutuality of perception, experience and action. Violence consists not only in the criminal act itself, but also in the suppression of the ability and possibility to respond. The act creates an absoluteness through the total surrender of the victim to the perpetrator and demonstrates a reign of violence that collapses practice. Everything that happens and can happen in a space contaminated by violence is violence. This is why every case of sexualised and other violence by church employees and in church organisations calls the church as an institution into question. In constellations of violence, there is no point of view beyond involvement in the history of violence, no third option besides perpetrators and victims. The perpetrators have the church structures on their side because they do not prevent, enable or conceal their crimes.

When discussing how to deal with sexualised violence in churches, the first question that arises is who is speaking, in what capacity and from what perspective. Is a person speaking as a responsible person who holds a leadership position and can therefore be held accountable for certain church actions, or as a person in charge to whom people affected by violence can turn, or who is responsible for "dealing with" incidents of sexualised violence, or as a person who has been a victim of sexualised violence themselves, or as an observer who analyses and describes a church process from a methodological and institutional distance? In practice, the perspectives, functions and tasks can overlap and one person can fulfil several roles. Multiple roles become problematic when they come into conflict with each other and the levels of involvement, participation and judgement or sanctioning are mixed.

Church understandings of community do not recognise any regulatory structures analogous to the state's separation of powers with the corresponding distinctions between levels and competences. The relationship between person and community often remains diffuse and unreflected, even in churches with a liberal self-image. The theological conviction that belonging to the church constitutes the believing person is susceptible to the error that membership in the church community would surpass the legally defined identity of the person. This can give the impression that the church forms a social and legal space of its own kind. Mixing the eschatological perspective, according to which a person is completely determined by the promise of their eternal future with God, with the secular legal status of the person can result in a serious relativisation of the unconditional worthiness of protection of personal integrity. Historically, such consolations of the afterlife in the face of injustice and injustice suffered have been part of the permanent armoury of ecclesiastical and political ideologies of domination. In the process, the theological topos of "man" - as a fallen creature in his relationship to God - comes into opposition with the human rights category of "person". How the church deals with violence depends not only on whether violence is perceived, but also on how violence is perceived, judged and what meaning and relevance is attributed to it. The more strongly church theological self-understandings are linked to the idea of a suffering existence or compassionate following of Christ (martyrdom), the more likely it is that violence can be trivialised or glorified as a test, closeness to God and obedience to God. Just as the lack of Christ's return became a problem for the early Christian communities, the other ambivalence of believed sanctification and experience-saturated transgression is in the bones of the church throughout its history.

2.2 The legal dimension of violence

The career of the modern democratic constitutional state is closely linked to its unique success - compared to other forms of government - in containing violence. The rule of law treats violence as an injustice against its own order. It is therefore prosecuted, judged and sentenced by state authorities. "[A]n offence to which a person falls victim [is] primarily not the violation of a person, but of a law. That is why the victim does not appear in court as the person bringing the action, but rather the public prosecutor, and the victim is a witness - on his or her own behalf, as he or she wishes, among other witnesses, as provided for by law". An act of violence is (always) also a crime because and insofar as it is directed against the principle of the state's monopoly on the use of force. This view is sobering because - as is often criticised - it only takes a rudimentary view of the victim's perspective and only recognises the suffering of the victim to the extent that it also constitutes a violation of state law. The literary and social scientist Jan Philipp Reemtsma, who was himself a victim of abduction, confronts the state's legal perspective with the individual and heterogeneous interests of victims of violence. On the one hand, as much as state protection is desired, this need must be weighed against freedom rights. A security dictatorship would be a poor alternative to the liberal state with its weak control interests and the relative insecurity that is accepted as a result. On the other hand, there is the legitimate interest of all citizens "that in the event that they find themselves as victims (injured parties), a certain degree of fairness shapes their fate. However, this fairness cannot equalise what fate is. In other words, the fact that a person has been the victim of a crime cannot be eliminated or compensated for by any measure in the world."

The reactions of the law often fall short of the demands and expectations of victims of violence. At the same time, legal prosecution and punishment are indispensable, because: "Recognising criminal liability means recognising that injustice has occurred. The victim was not unlucky, he or she was assaulted, not hit by a falling branch. The perpetrator was not allowed to do what he did. The victim has not only suffered harm, but has been wronged. [...] The victim's interest in confirmation that he has been wronged and the public's interest in establishing that a norm has been violated and that it applies despite this violation - which is confirmed by the punishment ('that was not allowed to be done!') - converge. This results in the convergence of victims' interests and public interests. [...] Law cannot heal. But where justice is not done, new incurable injuries arise."

The Church owes it to the victims that cases of sexualised violence in its institutions are clarified and sanctioned within the framework of proper legal proceedings. In addition, it must also have a strong interest of its own in following the Reformation principle, emphasised in the doctrine of justification, that no one can be judge:in their own cause: Church cannot and must not claim a competence to judge in matters in which its employees and itself are involved in any way. This would double the violence inflicted on the victims: as sexualised violence by the perpetrator and as the power of judgement of the institution for which the perpetrator worked and which he represented with his function.

The church's reticence towards the law is based not least on a misunderstanding. It consists in the lack of distinction between the trustworthiness of church institutions and the credibility of the church from God's Word. The dramatic loss of trust in the institutional church does not fundamentally call into question the faith that the church proclaims. Taking this faith seriously includes measuring the practice of the church against its own words. A distinction must be made between that which must not be abandoned and that which must not be defended or justified at any price. As a community of faith, the church is under the divine promise; as a social institution, it shares the shortcomings, critical nature and need for revision of all man-made orders and structures. The following therefore applies to how church institutions deal with sexualised violence: "One aim of coming to terms with the past, the recognition of suffering and injustice, is geared towards different aspects of what has happened: [...] Recognising injustice means establishing that rights have been violated and clarifying guilt or responsibility. Recognising the suffering refers to the effects of the violence. At this point, it becomes clear that recognising suffering alone is not enough and that injustice must always be an issue. People suffer - beyond experiences of (sexual) violence - from different experiences. Not everyone's guilt or responsibility can be localised in the actions of other people; sometimes people are simply unlucky. However, this never applies to violence. The distinction between misfortune and injustice is central - both for coming to terms with it on an individual and social level."

2.3 The social dimension of violence

Violence is an anthropological phenomenon and the opportunities to defend and protect oneself are very unevenly distributed. The less a person can defend themselves, the more they are dependent on the solidarity of others for protection. The church understands and characterises itself in a special way as such a protective space. This is why the violence suffered and inflicted in its space falls back on its self-image and the external expectations it evokes in two ways: (1) it is the place of violence and (2) it fails in its own claim and promise that violence should not be God's will. The church's failure does not (as a rule) consist of a criminal offence, but in the institution's fundamental breach of trust towards the victims of violence. The rebuttal that these are merely exceptional or isolated cases does not apply, because the breach of trust does not concern the acts of violence themselves, but the church's promise to offer a protective space of humanity in which strength, dominance, assertiveness and power of defence have no place.

What is particularly serious is that most cases of sexualised violence involve relationships between persons responsible for protection and persons entrusted with protection. The perpetrators build up a position of trust or use it to make the persons entrusted to them submissive. All doubts and protective reflexes, all mistrust and all resistance on the part of the victims are cancelled out by the staging of an intimate closeness and exclusive basis of trust. The feeling of powerlessness in the face of the strategic paralysis of any resistance is confirmed by the lack of attention or the attempts at relativisation and cover-up on the part of the institution. From a socio-psychological perspective, the perpetrators immunise themselves by shaming the victims. Victims often react to the disregard for their person and the refusal to recognise them with feelings of shame and guilt, which make them defenceless and defenseless towards themselves and their social environment. "Those who are ashamed must fear that their own recognition will lose value for other people - and that they will also lose all fear of their own person." Against the background of Axel Honneth's theory of recognition, a distinction can be made between three spheres of disregard to which the victims of sexualised violence are exposed by the perpetrators and the institution:

Sphere of recognition Disregard that can be experienced in this sphere Positive self-relationship that can be developed or destroyed
Recognition at the level of emotional personal relationships Violence that threatens physical and psychological integrity Self-confidence
Recognition at the legal level (Structural) exclusion from rights, insufficient access to rights Self-respect
Recognition through social appreciation and social solidarity Threat to dignity, degradation Self-assessment

The threat to the victim's personal integrity, her humiliation and the denial of the rights to which she is entitled do not take place exclusively between perpetrator and victim, but between numerous people in a social space. A person can only become a victim of violence in a social meeting space that makes this violence possible or does not prevent it. This is the social and structural dimension of violence, regardless of the specific crime. In the church context, people become victims because they share a system of trust with the perpetrators whose violence they are exposed to, from which the members expect protection, mutual recognition and responsible behaviour. Behind the blatant imbalance between trust and responsibility lies an eminent theological-ethical one-sidedness: although the church has an elaborate set of duties for dealing with (other) victims, it has no comparable normative defence system to protect people from becoming victims. Such pathophilia - which is also due to a false understanding of sacrifice - is reinforced by a traditional paternalism that knows more about the neediness of people than about resisting and fighting against their victimisation. The ambivalent theological sacralisation of the sacrificing person has a precarious social impact because it inserts theological interpretations where only law enforcement counts.

3 What does "coming to terms" with sexualised violence mean?

3.1 What does "reprocessing" mean?

The topic of "coming to terms with sexualised violence" is a huge challenge for churches across denominational and national borders. It is not about coming to terms with a tragedy, which in principle is about returning to a status quo ante. Nor is it about a historical guilt that has been inherited by subsequent generations and for which they must take responsibility. Sexualised violence is (1.) a reality that (2.) affects events in church institutions (3.) here and now and where (4.) it is unclear whether, to what extent and in what way the institutions' self-image and policies contribute to this. In this context, "reappraisal" should uncover "the culture in which child sexual abuse took place in an institution, which structures may have contributed to perpetrators inflicting violence on children and young people, who knew about it but did not prevent it or did so late. It should reveal whether there was an attitude among those responsible in the institutions at the time of the abuse that favoured violence and devalued children or young people, and it aims to clarify whether and if so why child sexual abuse was covered up, repressed or concealed in an institution. On the basis of these findings, reappraisal aims to recognise the suffering and the rights and support of adult victims. It aims to make a contribution to better protecting children and young people and establishing their rights, and it aims to sensitise society to the dimensions of child sexual abuse. Through public reporting and recommendations, reappraisal leads to a result that can be used for prevention." Reappraisal should:

  • give the victims of sexualised violence - if they want to - the floor;
  • overcoming the marginalisation, discrimination, suppression, invisibilisation and concealment of victims of sexualised violence and what has been done to them;
  • guarantee and enforce the fundamental rights of victims of sexualised violence to protection and testimony;
  • clearly name and publicly recognise the injustices suffered by the victims and the injustices in the institutional treatment of them;
  • enable consistent legal prosecution of the offences, perpetrators, confidants and cover-ups,
  • carefully analyse the institutional circumstances that facilitate sexualised violence and make it difficult or impossible to detect,
  • Critically reflect on institutional thinking, institutional attention and openness to the topic of sexualised violence;
  • consistently and promptly take and implement all necessary measures for the robust protection of children and young people in particular.

Institutions rely on established procedural routines for their tasks, which selectively distribute responsibility and attention. Functional approaches are characterised by a systemic fading out of the person. Many reactions from church leaders and employees to the disclosed cases of sexualised violence confirm this finding: the protection of the institution, including its representatives, is given higher priority than the general protection of the individual. A serious church "reappraisal" must therefore begin with the institutional-critical realisation that the focus on the individual person and their suffering does not correspond to the familiar institutional approach. The church must therefore leave the floor to the affected individuals with their needs, interests and goals. Victims of sexualised violence become and remain victims because they cannot and are not allowed to speak freely and because they have no place where they can be heard. From the church's point of view, "coming to terms" cannot mean readjusting the familiar procedures, but essentially keeping them unchanged.

3.2 What "work"?

Even in the Bible, we encounter labour as the appropriation and transformation of the world born out of necessity and carried out under hardship. In late modernity, the classic concepts of "production work", "wage labour" and "gainful employment" are constantly being joined by new genitive activities: "relational work", "physical work", "self-work" or "mourning work". The required part of the term names the object on which the subject is active or which it works on. It is about (in a very abbreviated combination of Foucauldian, Hegelian and Habermasian categories) forms of teleological, goal-oriented (self-)discipline that are characterised by two features: (1.) They are focussed on the self and not on sociality (communicative action). And (2.) As work, they make the processed object of their activity. Working through" comes close to "working off" (not only phonetically). Like all work, "reworking" also aims to achieve a result, once it has been achieved it is finished and can be put aside (because the next job is already waiting). Work is essentially a technical activity, a process that can be depicted in an instruction manual and can be successfully mastered by following it. Whoever speaks of work has a certain view of an activity and places it (and its motives) in a corresponding horizon of expectations.

Against this backdrop, the question arises as to the subject of "catching up". Owners of overflowing desks can tell you a thing or two about what it means to catch up: to tackle the work that has been left behind so that you can finally tick it off. The other common everyday meaning relates more to mental and social burdens: the relationship crisis or the argument at the last family party that should finally be tackled. In both cases, something that got out of hand in the past needs to be put right. And in both cases, the aim is to correct a deviation from a predetermined order. Reappraisal aims to restore and confirm the order and its validity. Can these approaches and objectives also apply to dealing with victims of sexualised violence? Which order should be restored and which legacies should be removed? Which and whose story or stories are involved and who are their subjects?

Jan Philipp Reemtsma gives an impressive answer to the last question, which probably also incorporates his own experiences as a kidnap victim: "Becoming a victim of a violent crime is a biographical turning point that generally cannot be overestimated. He and she are no longer who they were before. [...] Perceptions change, sensitivities change, priorities change, tolerances change and so on. It doesn't stop there: He or she speaks 'as a victim'. And that is why there is a vital interest in being perceived as such. And not - this is important - from the point of view of harm. Someone who has been the victim of a crime has probably lost all sorts of things - trust in the world, for example - but they have also gained something that others have not: Information about the world. He or she did not want it, especially not in this way, but now he or she has it. And in this respect, he or she is more informed, perhaps even smarter than others. But also more suspicious, less tolerant, perhaps more misanthropic; it depends on the individual case. If you want to do justice to such a person, you have to take this into account without pathologising them. [...] All help must basically have [a] dual character: to help overcome this special status [as a victim] by recognising it. But recognition also means encouraging someone to actively fulfil the role of the victim, and one can only hope that this very moment of activity can help to overcome the status of the victim. Because being a victim means being passive. Accepting help also means being passive. Help for victims that is not also aimed at expanding their own room for manoeuvre is problematic and usually counterproductive."

"Dealing with" sexualised violence is not a scheduled activity that ends with a final report, the establishment of measures and compensation for the victims. It is a complex process at various levels and involves the concerns and interests of different subjects with conflicting perspectives. The institution had the lead when the sexualised violence occurred, it cannot also claim it when it comes to "coming to terms with it". For once, it is not the case that whoever has brought the soup on themselves must be able to spoon it out themselves. This is because we are talking about incidents that the institution did not cause, but for which it bears responsibility, the consequences of which must be borne by the victims of violence, not by the institution. The institution was not on the side of the victims when the crimes were committed and therefore cannot be on the side of the victims when it comes to "coming to terms". It was not the institutional order that failed (as in an industrial accident), but the order itself did not fulfil what it promised and what was expected of it.

This also applies to the prevention, protection and reporting concepts established in the recent past, which are viewed ambivalently in the specialist literature. Just as meaningful and effective treatment in medicine requires a careful medical history and expert diagnosis, effective institutional protection against sexualised violence is also dependent on a serious and objective analysis, description and assessment of the relevant causes, structures, processes and factors. Prevention and protection concepts are the result of and not the alternative to consistent "processing". Prevention and protection measures are particularly dependent on careful and comprehensive "reappraisal" in order to avoid being ineffective and hanging in the air or merely pursuing symbolic politics. "The organisational and institutional structures that enabled the abuse and prevented it from being uncovered were identified as part of the reappraisal. Measures must be defined and implemented for the identified weaknesses that lead to an organisational and cultural change and minimise potential risks for girls and boys. Only in this way can protection concepts have a lasting effect. If "organisational and cultural change" is an essential component of protection concepts, church institutions cannot refer to existing prevention and protection concepts when asked to "come to terms" without trivialising sexualised violence on their premises as a mere deviation from an otherwise functioning organisation.

What is referred to as "coming to terms" is - analogous to "mourning work" - the prerogative of those affected by sexualised violence. "Coming to terms" is the victims' very own affair, which cannot be represented by anything and cannot be ceded to anyone, because it concerns the lives of the people affected, or more precisely: it is their life. They have no life apart from or outside of the crimes of which they have become and will forever remain victims. Church institutions must bear this existential connection in mind and keep it in mind before they start thinking about "coming to terms". Everything that institutions can and must do to come to terms with, prevent and protect remains inextricably linked to the lives of the victims of violence. If we can speak of "work" in this context, then it is most likely in the sense of Louis Marin's work of mourning, which Jacques Derrida recalls in his funeral oration. It would be a "labour without force [...], a labour that should work on renouncing force, on its own force, a labour that should work on failure and consequently on writing off force (faire son deuil de la force), a force that works on its own unproductivity, that works absolutely on detaching and detaching itself from what 'force' could have as an absolute". These would also be the cornerstones for a possible "theology of reappraisal".

Picture of Frank Mathwig

Frank Mathwig

Prof. Dr. theol.
Beauftragter für Theologie und Ethik

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