Network 4 Debate, World

Who’s Listening to the Victims of Paedophile Priests? [Interview]

Interview with Matthias Katsch, the founder and spokesperson for the ECKIGER TISCH (Squared Table), and a member of the German Council of Survivors, working alongside the German Parliament.

Agata Diduszko-Zyglewska: As a child you were abused by a priest, and so now you work for the sake of other victims.

Matthias Katsch
Founder and spokesperson for the ECKIGER TISCH (Squared Table), and a member of the German Council of Survivors, working alongside the German Parliament.

Matthias Katsch: Yes, I was born and raised in Berlin. I attended Jesuit college there and when I was thirteen years old, I was abused. Like many survivors, I kept it secret, I was ashamed of the situation, I never spoke about it for the following thirty years – until 2010. Then I came out publicly, reached out and connected with other survivors. Within weeks, we had a tsunami – a wave of disclosure all over Germany, hundreds of former students of Church institutes, schools, colleges came out and said ‘me too’. I’m the founder and a spokesperson for the Square Table Foundation. We, the victims, the survivors – wherever: in Poland, Ireland, the US, Germany, France,  we have started to speak. But the crucial question is: who is listening?

I suppose by asking this question you’re referring to a lack of reaction on the part of society and local communities. In Poland, this is exactly what gives paedophile priests the opportunity to operate. People keep silent, even defend priests when a case finally becomes public.

The Church works like any other institution: when it feels attacked, it defends itself – that is a natural reaction. The important question is: why is it so difficult for society to accept reality, to deal with it, to recognize survivors and help them? In Germany, this question is posed to institutions, to the Church, to the families…

We are also talking about a cultural problem here – the differences between men and women in society. In our country in 2010, it was actually big news that most of the victims were men, because society knows that victims are always women! The big scandal, the part that made the news, was that it was men coming out as victims. But of course, the situation in every society is different.

The victims are speaking out, trying to get heard, but there is no reaction from society, so how can they achieve anything?

What I suppose is missing in Poland – and that is the difference I see from Germany and Western European countries – is the lack of influence and activity by civil society. There are a lot of activists and NGOs, but they don’t have power in Polish society . The victims are speaking out, trying to get heard, but there is no reaction from society, so how can they achieve anything?

What social tools can be helpful for the victims?

Community, press, media. We have thousands of articles telling the stories of survivors and there is an ongoing discussion. This is very helpful for the victims, and not just the old ones like me – to overcome the silence, to finally talk about it, this is what allows people who are in danger or have experienced sexual violence to come forward, to speak, to get help.

In Germany, I must say, when the story broke, society was soon willing to listen to us. In the decades before 2010 – dating back to the seventies – there were movements, especially of women, that talked about violence in relationships and sexual violence against women and children. There was already a network of counselling services all over the country, so there was a society prepared to receive this news, this truth, that the Catholic Church also has a history of sexual abuse. And this made it easier for us to negotiate with the Church, because society and the authorities were supporting us.

Why is your foundation called Square Table?

This is a foundation of mostly former Jesuit students who have been abused in Jesuit schools. It was founded because after we started speaking out in 2010, a round table process was started to explore the issue, but we, the survivors, were not invited to participate in it.  We thought: now the government is speaking with the Church and we are excluded! We don’t want a cozy round table, we want a confrontation. We are the victims, we want recognition, we want to exchange information on the same level.  So as survivors from the Jesuit school we have organized a Square Table of our own.

We are the victims, we want recognition, we want to exchange information on the same level.

As a result of this process – with different participants from society and the state – the government has appointed a commissioner for the issue of child sexual abuse and stated that he wanted to hear the voices of the survivors. Then Parliament established a commission to select fifteen victims, out of several hundred who applied, to the council of survivors.  I am one of its fifteen members. We provide information and help politicians in Parliament in their decision-making on policies that help protect the children. So we have achieved a lot.

This commissioner is cooperating with the government?

He is a government official appointed especially to deal with the problem of child abuse in society – not just by the Church. We run programmes directed at schools, sports organisations, dealing with sexual violence in families, programmes that support adult survivors, prevention programmes for the children. And, for the first time in Germany, there is an independent commission conducting an inquiry about the reasons for child abuse and the lack of response within society.

Why should society care about sexual abuse victims? Maybe for the whole community it’s just invisible? There are many other problems, after all.

Sexual violence is a crime that damages its victim on a mental and emotional level, and can have terrible consequences for the rest of somebody’s life. Men, especially, have a tendency not to come out and say ‘I need help’ and deal with it in different ways – for example, a lot of cases of alcohol abuse can be linked to childhood trauma. Men tend to not talk about it, but act it out in violent or self-destructive behaviour, like drinking. So we need to address this issue: to heal them and to heal our society, because it harms not only the victims, but also potentially their families: they are unconsciously behaving as bad influences. It is like cancer: it keeps spreading until you cut it out.

But there is help, you can get treatment, you can have therapy. And the earlier the intervention, the better chance you have to heal and live a normal life. I don’t want to exaggerate, of course it’s a deep wound in a person’s soul – but you can overcome it, you can overcome the trauma. Our fathers and grandfathers suffered through the war and saw all the atrocities that man can do to man – and they overcame and got on with their lives. So can the survivors. If they can talk about it, they can have therapy, they can lead a normal life: but they need help and support and that’s why the silence is so deadly, it prevents people from being helped. When society is more open about these issues, it is easier to reach out to these victims.

Germany is a good place for some particular comparisons – are there any differences between Catholic and Protestant  Churches concerning child sexual abuse by priests?

Of all those who called and said ‘I was abused within an institution’ – meaning a school, sports organisation, a college or so, 40% were in the Catholic Church.

Of course, there are cases of violence committed by Protestant priests as well, but the numbers are quite different: the number of crimes committed by Catholic priests are much higher. Of all those who called and said ‘I was abused within an institution’ – meaning a school, sports organisation, a college or so, 40% were in the Catholic Church. This means the Catholic church has an issue – nearly half of the victims are on their side. We have to take the other institutions into account as well, but if you compare the numbers, it is obvious that there is a difference. It could be structural – in Protestant churches, priests can marry, and while – of course – a married man can abuse children, he also has a chance to have a happy sexual and emotional life. Another aspect is that you can have a female ministry in Protestant churches. What makes the Catholic church so difficult is this spirit of masculinity– they stay together as a bunch of guys who support each other and they create a special climate within the organisation. And this is really hard to overcome when it comes to disclosure of sexual violence and prevention.

It reminds me of mob structures. The internal support seems to be the most important aspect, and it is very visible in the Polish Catholic Church, too. For example, a few years ago, it turned out that Archbishop Paetz working in Poznań was molesting seminary students. Other bishops working in the same curia didn’t support the victims. One of those bishops has been recently nominated by the Vatican to be the Archbishop of Kraków, which means the highest-ranked official of the Polish Catholic Church, and Paetz himself, still participates in Church public ceremonies.

Whatever happens, we stay together against the others.

Exactly! Whatever happens, we stay together against the others. And those with power in the Church have the means to protect each other. This is, again, a problem of the Catholic Church – there are structural problems and risks in Protestant Churches but if you compare them in Germany, the numbers show that on one side there is a structural problem to deal with and on the other it is much easier – they have more means to prevent the problem from happening.

Unfortunately, the church you have to deal with is the Catholic Church – how is your dialogue with the Church going?

Unfortunately, we have had little progress in dealing with the Church, and this is a big problem. The bishops are not willing to talk to us. I know that within the German Church, hundreds of activists on the local levels have invested a lot to build a prevention programme – they educate their staff in the Church parishes and youth organisations on how to prevent sexual abuse. But the authorities, the bishops, still have to accept that we are not their enemies.

I understand it’s not easy to accept the reality of the fact that your organisation is responsible for so much suffering, especially when it’s a religious organisation that stands for virtue and goodness in the world – but it is necessary. Not just because we have the right to be recognised by the Church, but also because we need to protect children of today.

In general, the Church is willing to accept the reality that priests abuse children. But it is hard to make them accept the fact that there are structures in the Church that help this happen, that enable this. For example, they are not willing to discuss the system of formation for the young priests, or the system of secrecy surrounding the policies of the entire organisation. And they are not willing to talk about power within the Church – between the different levels – the laity, and the priests, the bishops, the archbishops, the cardinals, the Pope. This is a hierarchical structure, and hierarchical structures have a bigger risk of secrecy, of cover-ups, of not talking about issues. This causes difficulties when we are trying to discuss the prevention of child abuse within the organisation.

We also have to talk about the spiritual dimension of it – the Catholic Church worldwide has an oppressive concept of sexuality, which makes it very hard, not just for us survivors but also for the priests themselves and the whole religious community, to discuss these issues. So there is a lot to do and we are happy to share experiences and support the Polish initiative – “Have No Fear” Foundation. I think we are, in a way, walking together – and we do it not only for us, but to help and support each other in preventing such experiences being suffered by the children of today.


This article was created as part of the Network 4 Debate project, supported by the International Visegrad Fund.


Agata Diduszko-Zyglewska
Graduate of English studies at Warsaw University and the Gardzienice Academy for Theatre Practices. Journalist, cultural activist, translator, member of the Social Dialogue Committee for Culture. Member of the Political Critique Team.