Status: 28/09/2023, 16:11 p.m.
Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck speaks during a press conference at the start of a study on sexual abuse. © Marcel Kusch/dpa
After the deep fall of Cardinal Hengsbach due to allegations of abuse, the diocese of Essen is in what is probably its deepest crisis since its foundation in 1958. Where can we go from here? According to Ruhr Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck, the loss of confidence is "enormous".
After the allegations of abuse against the late Catholic Cardinal Franz Hengsbach (1910-1991), the diocese of Essen has also received a "number of tips" that have nothing to do with sexual violence, according to Ruhr Bishop Overbeck. They would "point to an ambivalence of the founding bishop, which was apparently taboo for a long time," said Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of the German press agency dpa on Thursday.
"We are currently experiencing a veritable earthquake in our diocese, because with this deep fall of an episcopal identification figure, an ideal of the Church is also shattering," said the Ruhr bishop. This is hard to bear. "I am aware of how much this is tearing many people in our diocese apart right now. But there is no way around facing these bitter realities. That's part of coming to terms with the past."
Last week, the diocese of Essen announced that there was a "serious" suspicion that Hengsbach had sexually abused a 1950-year-old during his time as auxiliary bishop in Paderborn in the 16s. In addition, a woman accuses Hengsbach of another assault in 1967 during his time as bishop in Essen. The chairman of the German Bishops' Conference, Georg Bätzing, sees "criminal behavior" in the bishop, who died in 1991.
According to Overbeck, the loss of trust in the Church is "enormous". "We can only counter this with a profound renewal." This includes first and consistently listening to the voices of those affected by sexualised violence and abuse of power, he said. "It's not easy and I'm sure I'll have to keep learning it with many others."
But the perspective of those affected also provides guidance on what needs to be changed so that abuse of power and the terrible crimes of sexual violence can be prevented as far as possible in the future. "This then concerns structural questions, but above all questions about the separation of power and powers, about the magisterial-ecclesiastical sexual morality and about our understanding of ministry." In the end, it will come down to the fact that the church can become a place where people know they are valued and at home and do not have to be afraid, Overbeck said.
Serious reforms are not possible without a ruthless and self-critical reappraisal, he stressed. "Because if we were to build on an ecclesiastical heritage in which church employees have inflicted so much appalling suffering on other people without any self-criticism, then we as an institution would rightly have no future."
It shows very clearly "where it leads when personalities are exaggerated and idealized," Overbeck continued. "In the Church, we will have to learn from this to be much more cautious about putting individual people on a pedestal in the truest sense of the word because of their spiritual office or a high function." As a result, it is too quickly faded out that every person also has dark sides and, in the worst case, is capable of malicious deeds.
"From the various studies on sexual violence, we also know how dangerous the exaggeration of high-ranking personalities can be. They are considered untouchable - and if they then commit terrible deeds under the guise of their idealised reputation, those affected have little chance because they are not believed." What an appropriate memory of Cardinal Hengsbach could look like in the longer term, he is not able to say at the moment. "To do this, we need a reappraisal and a broad debate."
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For 33 years, Cardinal Franz Hengsbach was the first bishop of the Ruhr diocese, founded in 1958, at the same time the founder of Adveniat - the episcopal Latin American relief organization - and for many years German military bishop and socio-politically committed to the Ruhr area in the steel and coal crisis. Dpa