by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism
Dr. Knight: How did you begin your initiation into the sexual abuse crisis?
Msgr. Peter: ntil recently, I was the Vicar General of the Archbishop of Munich and Freising, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, for a period of ten years. Right from the very beginning, these years were characterized by the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Before this time, I could not have imagined the scale of this scandal, and who is involved to what extent. Ultimately, dealing with specific cases of abuse led to a deep personal crisis, and I was confronted with the question: what is the sense of being a priest, in a Church that has become guilty to such an extent? For me, there were really only two options: to quit, or to continue - but the latter only with a clear goal of standing up for victims, dealing with abuse and helping to prevent it.
Dr. Knight: What actions have you taken to push for change and help in working towards healing in the Church?
Msgr. Peter: Two things seem particularly important to me.
Firstly: Healing can only take place, if the wound is closely examined and identified. In specific terms, this means that abuse within the area of responsibility of the Church must be clearly identified, and not simply downplayed as a problem of individual perpetrators. Abuse is a crime, this crime happens within the context of the Church, and this crime is enabled by systemic factors. Specific cases and the associated responsibilities must be fully investigated, and the systemic causes must be highlighted and eliminated.
Secondly: We must take the victims (or survivors) seriously as witnesses, dialogue partners, experts and teachers. They should have equal rights as joint decision-makers in committees and commissions.
Dr. Knight: What support do you give to Catholics in the pews?
Msgr. Peter: The Catholics in the pews need to be absolutely certain that the responsible leaders in the Church are doing everything humanly possible to investigate abuse, prevent further abuse and enable healing. This also means that the entire spectrum of the voices of the people of God must be heard and taken seriously. It is frustrating for many Church members, if their calls for reform are not taken seriously for years and even decades, and it then turns out that many of these reforms, if implemented, could have been effective against abuse. One example of this includes the calls for reform which relate to the way in which power and control are exercised by the clergy. In the context of my work as a university lecturer, I would like, for example, to make my contribution towards resolving these and other related issues, e.g. through educational events, publications and conceptual discussion contributions.
Dr. Knight: Can you tell us how you dedicated your expertise to this cause?
Msgr. Peter: I had the opportunity to study education, in addition to theology. This proved to be very useful in dealing with the issue of abuse. Education has a lot to do with enabling people to lead a self-determined life, enabling them to develop resilience or helping to strengthen their resilience, and designing both structures and processes in such a way that people experience appreciation, encouragement and protection.
Dr. Knight: Why do Catholics need to hear survival stories and tell us about your ways to listen well.
Msgr. Peter: Only those who really listen, who allow themselves to be moved by what is being said, truly embrace the person who reveals something of themself in their words. Listening is an expression of appreciation. This appreciation, this acceptance of survivors and taking them seriously, is something that we, as a Church, together all owe to those who have suffered abuse within the area of responsibility of the Church. And ultimately, listening helps to be more sensitive to signs of possible abuse in future, to recognize it and help prevent it. Theologically speaking, when listening to the survivors, we encounter Christ Himself. It is He who identifies with them, is on their side, makes them one with Him.
Real listening can only succeed, if one is also willing to meet personally with victims, and is open to facing criticism, accusations and rejection. "Theoretical listening", in the form of studying files or reading relevant texts, is not enough. I myself want to make every effort possible to meet personally with victims.
Dr. Knight: What kind of programs have you initiated in your area?
Msgr. Peter: As part of my activities at the Centre for Child Protection at the Pontifical GregorianUniversity in Rome, I am involved in the training courses offered there, which convey both scientific and practical expertise in abuse prevention to people who carry out pastoral work on behalf of the Church. In a new project, an attempt will be made, together with victims, to identify what can be done and must be done, in order to enable the healing of spiritual wounds which the abuse has caused.
Dr. Knight: Could you tell us how to talk to kids about sexual abuse?
Msgr. Peter: It is difficult to give a general answer to this question, because there are many factors to consider, such as age, environment, psychological stability, cultural factors, etc. In general, it is important to make children strong, and convey to them: no matter what happens, you are safe with me. We can talk about everything, and I am at your side. No one has the right to hurt you. Everyone must respect you, if you say "No!" to touching or physical intimacy.
Dr. Knight: How has your involvement in these programs assisted your own spiritual development?
Msgr. Peter: Compassion, compassion, compassion… spirituality without reference to the suffering in the world, without foundation in the real conditions of one's own life context, and without very specific consequences for one's own actions towards the helpless, abused, weak or disenfranchised, seems increasingly pointless to me.
Dr. Knight: How do you work with clergy on the sexual abuse crisis, without making them the crisis?
Msgr. Peter: In the Catholic Church, there are a large number of priests who selflessly carry out their duties for the good of the people, to the best of their knowledge and beliefs. They have to contend with the difficulty that they are often lumped together with the perpetrators and those who conceal abuse. They suffer, because investigating and dealing with abuse within the area of responsibility of the Church often only occurs hesitantly and slowly. They feel demotivated, because the Church is very often only perceived in a negative light, and thereby their own efforts perhaps seem futile.
In connection with these mental and/or emotional states of the clergy, it is important to not only convey specialist knowledge and expertise regarding abuse prevention, but also to highlight the spiritual dimension of dealing with the abuse scandal. Priests have a special calling to follow Christ. Following Christ also always means following the way of the cross. Bearing this in mind, it is now time for us priests to quite consciously take the cross upon ourselves: as symbolic atonement for the serious injustice has been committed within the Church; in solidarity with the suffering that afflicts the victims; to fulfil what we have promised during the rite of ordination; to provide relief for those who feel abandoned and alone with bearing their cross.
Dr. Knight: How does the conviction that we are the Church affect your work?
Msgr. Peter: The verse 1 Corinthians 12:26 has become especially important to me: "If one member suffers, all suffer together". If one takes this seriously, then one is obliged to stand up against abuse and for healing.
Dr. Knight: Thank you so much for helping us to understand your model of healing for
sexual abuse survivors.