Bishop's resignation shifts attention to Protestant abuse
Former Hamburg Bishop Maria Jepsen
AFTER FOLLOWING THE NEWS stories of the past few months, you might have gained the impression that the Catholic Church is in essence a giant pedophile ring. But this perception is unfair – not because it is untrue, but because it insinuates that Catholics have a monopoly on systemic child abuse. In fact, hierarchical religions of all kinds attract pedophiles to their ranks, including the Catholics’ main Central European competitor, Protestantism. A high-level resignation today once more casts a sombre light on what increasingly appears to be organized religion’s “original sin.”
Back in 1992, Maria Jepsen née Bregas made history by becoming the first of only three women bishops in Germany’s Protestant (Lutheran and/or Reformed) Church - in fact, she was the first female Lutheran bishop in the world. She single-handedly revitalized German Protestantism with her outspoken feminist positions and unorthodox beliefs – for example, her open support for gay marriage and her honest conviction that Mary could not have been a virgin. Today, the charismatic Bishop of the North Elbian State Church made history once more by becoming the second of the three to resign in disgrace (the other was Hanover Bishop Margot Kässmann, who left office after her arrest for drunk driving back in February of this year).
This time, however, a Protestant bishop was not driven out of office for what she did, but rather for what she didn’t do. According to a report by the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel on July 12, the popular and outspoken Jepsen had learned as early as 1999 of the systematic, decades-long sexual abuse of underage boys and girls at the hands of a certain Pastor Dieter K. of Ahrensburg, and not only in March of this year, as she had previously claimed, and failed to act on her knowledge.
A voice of tolerance:
Bishop Jepsen in a photo op with Hamburg
imam Ramazan Ucar (ndr)
According to Der Spiegel, the local church administration had quietly relieved Pastor K., who had also abused three of his own stepsons, of his duties already in 1999 and transferred him to a new job as a prison pastor, where he would be far removed from any contact with children. However, it never made the reasons for this transfer public, thus allowing the pastor to seek a new job as a high school religion teacher in the same town without a word to the school administration. (Pastor K. retired in 2001.) Jepsen, it seems, knew all about the case but did nothing. She informed neither the state church authorities nor the public prosecutor, which would have been the standard procedure in such a case.
The North Elbian Church only began investigating the matter in March of this year – although the abuse charges against Pastor K., like the charges levied against disgraced bishop Walter Mixa, are statute-barred due to the passage of time. For her part, the sixty-five year-old Jepsen claims to have known only about rumors of an adult affair - distateful, perhaps, but entirely legal. “The word abuse was never used, otherwise I would have become restless,” she said in a recent interview. But the woman who first told her of the matter in 1999 – a sister of one of the victims – recently signed an affidavit calling the bishop a liar. Jepsen announced her resignation at a press conference this afternoon, telling journalists that her loss of "credibility" had made it impossible for her to continue in office.
Jepsen’s departure comes during a period when more and more claims of child abuse are being levied against the Protestant Church and its myriad institutions and initiatives. So far the numbers involved are only a fraction of those identified in the Catholic Church, but after all, the investigation is only just beginning. In the meantime, Germany’s Catholic abuse scandal drags on with new accusations and investigations, including charges laid against forty-four priests in the Freiburg diocese alone. On July 8, Freiburg archbishop Robert Zollitsch, who also serves as chairman of the German Bishop Conference, admitted to the press that he had been aware of many of the cases now under investigation much earlier than previously stated, and he formally apologized to the public for “personal errors” in his non-pursuit of the perpetrators. In June the Freiburg public prosecutor's office opened a full-scale investigation of His Grace "as an accessory to the sexual abuse of children."
Robert Zollitsch, Archbishop of Freiburg
Despite all this bad press, young German men continue to study for the priesthood, whose ranks are growing by approximately 100 new padres each year. In contrast to earlier practices, the Church is focusing on the problems of the celibate lifestyle and pedophilia in an effort to head off child abuse before the public prosecutor needs to be called in. Too little, too late, you might say, but faced with a problem as intractable as this one perhaps we should thank heaven for small miracles.