What moves people to abuse children, what is the problem of the Catholic Church and how should we respond to the recent child abuse cases? A conversation with Hans-Ludwig Kröber, the foremost forensic psychiatrist in Germany.
Mr. Kröber, why do people become pedophiles, according to forensic psychiatry?
That is not so easy to say. There are various opinions about it. Often ‘key events’ in youth or childhood play their part, for example the first feelings of being in love and sexual occurences in relation to other children, after which one remains stuck at the level of ‘playing doctor’. In any case, people become pedosexual in their developmental phase, and not after having abstained from sex for a prolonged period. Purely statistically speaking, you are more likely to get pregnant from kissing than become a paedophile because you are celibate.
Speaking from your own experiences with offenders, how can the pedosexual urge for satisfaction become so strong that compassion and the natural instinct to protect children is overruled?
Many offenders deny that children are hurt. That happens through a cognitive bias: “They really want it too”, they tell themselves. Pedophilia networks also continuously try to decriminalise it and claim that they are the only ones who have a harmless relation with children, free from authority. “We are not concerned with parental or pedagogical power, but with love and freedom”, they say. Their spokesman was Daniel Cohn Bendit and there was this famous photo of this little boy with an erection, which would be presented as proof that eight-year-olds also a developed sexuality…
When children are sexually abused it is not often immediately recogniseable as visible violence. But the psychological consequences are often so dramatical that they can lead to suicide. What makes sexual abuse so fatal?
I believe that when something like that ends in suicide, the abuse is an extra factor in a situation that is in itself already fatal. It is the experience of a mature sexuality coming too close, overwhelming someone and which is, in the eyes of children, dirty. There are film recordings of offenders in such situation, which I, as an expert for the court, partially had to see. These recordings are highly uncomfortable to watch, but they are also very educational, since they so clearly show the discrepancy between offender and child. In their depravity the offenders lower themselves and behave as if they child also, in some way, experiences it as an erotic situation. And the children who, being powerless, submit to this, fight back, cry out, complain and are repulsed. In the end they do what the offender wants and with that, and that’s the worst part, they increasingly feel an active co-offender. When the children do no immediately report the crime it becomes truly risky, leading into a longer period of abuse and the longer this last, the smaller the probability that they’ll ever report anything.
Never before has the topic of pedophilia been as visible in Germany as in the past weeks. Those our time, do the 1970s, do specific institutions have a special problem with child abuse and is this the revelation of a horror that has always existed in this way?
Not only that, it was always clear it existed, and that was the current uproar amazes me. One only has to take a look at the forensic statistics of years past. In the past priests have also been punished for child abuse. But now two priests, who are already dead and who where convicted for their acts at the time, who worked with the Regensburger Domspatzen, make headlines. Long after their death. Why? Because Georg Ratzinger was also with the Domspatzen and people hope in the ways to end up at the pope. In another way they succeeded. But these kinds of situations occur in all pedagogical situations, in all times. Whether it was in schools, scouting, sport clubs, even in church communities. And in the villages there have always been men who couldn’t control themselves. People would warn the children: “Avoid him because he messes about and is a pervert.” Social relations were different: it wasn’t discussed much, but they tried to move the people in question to were they posed no danger.
That is why the Catholic Church is now so much criticised. According to “Der Spiegel” at least 94 cases of suspected child abuse, by both clergy and laity, have been reported since 1995…
When “Der Spiegel” comes with 94 suspects in 15 years, someone who is remotely familiar with criminology would consider that a surprisingly low number. It would mean that the risk of sexual abuse in Catholic institutions is even lower than I originally thought. An average of 15,000 child abuse cases are reported to the police per year. They Church employs about 600,000 people, that is about 1.8% of the population. A total of 94 cases is a dramatic improvement compared to the old numbers. But more than half the sexual abuse cases occur within families. To a larger extent, that goes for violent crimes. In the debate about the Catholic Church, sexual abuse and the striking of children in a pedagogical situation – which used to happen in all schools and was considered normal – are so often confused in such a way that you think people want to inflate the statistics.
To discredit the Church?
I support that claim that Manfred Lütz made in the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”: That people create an image of the church, also when they’ve barely been inside a church, an image that serves as a scapegoat and a stick to hit with, so that people can prove their own superiority. For many it is obvious: because those people all wear women’s clothing and do not marry, the place is rife with sexual confusion. “Der Spiegel” has always known that that would not end well.
U were part of an independent medium that advised the Church in 2003, when she created new guidelines for dealing with pedophilia. What can the conclusions from the past weeks teach us?
In my experience it is difficult for many dioceses, also with the new rules, to deal with new cases, purely because they have no experience. The victims first report to the Church instead of to the police, which would be the usual place to report crime. Often the victims do not want to go to the police. And then the diocese needs to decide which rules to follow, who will document what and who must first be addressed. That often overwhelms them,. That is why victims should immediately go to the police, also because that raises the threshold for people who want to be in the centre of attention. Sadly, that happens a lot. Tissy Bruns now wants a special representative for abuse in schools. But when I don’t dare to go to the police, I’ll also not send an email to Berlin. And reporting must happen sooner, not 30 years after the fact. Only that can protect others.
Are you yourself a Catholic?
No, I am originally a militant Lutheran, but I’m not religious. When I attend a Catholic Mass, which happens very rarely, it appears a bit like hocus pocus to me. On the other hand I was very impressed during my visits as an expert to the Vatican and the German bishops’ conference. In my role I have ample opportunity for comparisons with other institutions, also because I relate to other scientists and fields of profession. The bishops in the Vatican who occupy themselves with this topic were the most interested and sensible group with which I have ever discussed sexual abuse.
Thank you very much for this conversation!
The interview was taken by Constantin Magnis.