German Protestant churches riddled with sexual abuse and cover-ups, report finds

Forum Study suggests church features prized by German Protestants facilitated rather than prevented sexualised violence and continue to hinder full disclosure

For 500 years, German Protestants have been quietly confident that theirs was the better Christian church: a participative and democratic antithesis to centralised, clerical Roman Catholicism.

But a bombshell report on Thursday into sexualised violence and institutional cover-up presents a very different – yet wearingly familiar – story.

After four years of work, the Forum Study suggested many church features prized by German Protestants had aided and abetted – rather than prevented – sexualised violence in the past, and are hindering full disclosure in the present.

Even at 871 pages, the report’s authors conceded their report is an incomplete first attempt to cast light on abuse within Germany’s EKD, a federation of 20 autonomous Protestant and Reformed churches with 13,000 parishes and 19 million registered members.


At an event in Hanover on Thursday, a visibly flushed EKD president Bishop Annette Kurschus accepted “in humility” a report filled with what she called “acts of perfidious violence” against children, youths and adults.

“We didn’t protect them at the time of the offence and we didn’t treat them properly when they had the courage to come forward,” she said.

Four years ago, the EKD commissioned an independent research team to conduct a systematic study of abuse cases in church structures and in Diakonie, its sister charitable organisation.

The €3 million research report found evidence of sexual abuse of minors – average age 11 and 65 per cent male – in all areas of church activity, from Sunday services to childcare and confirmation groups. The largest perpetrator group – 40 per cent – were pastors, of which almost all were male aged between 40 and 43. Of the perpetrators identified, more than two-thirds were married.

Researchers said the confirmed 2,225 abuse survivors and 1,259 alleged perpetrators in files they were allowed examine represented “the tip of the tip of the iceberg”. Extrapolating confirmed figures for the entire country, the researchers estimate about 9,300 survivors and 3,500 perpetrators in the postwar period. These estimates arose after researchers said all but one of the 20 EKD churches failed to co-operate with the researchers.

“A systemic analysis of personnel files was part of our research plan but we couldn’t implement this,” said Prof Harald Dressing, a forensic psychiatrist and research team member. While he cited “sluggish work of individual churches… and data of substandard quality”, the EKD, which earns €6.24 billion annually from Germany’s church tax system, cited personnel, time and other resource constraints for not presenting the files on time.

Researchers in five sub-projects interviewed more than 200 survivors of abuse, sent questionnaires to each church and studied church documents, reporting structures and responses to abuse survivors.

As late as 2018, eight years after the first revelations about sexual abuse in Germany’s Catholic church, they found EKD representatives “did not view sexualised violence as an issue for them”.

Either they framed sexual violence against minors as a uniquely Catholic church issue – derived from its celibacy rule and sexual moral teachings – or as a general societal or historical problem.

EKD members’ “homespun narrative of being the better church” meant many struggled – or refused to believe – that such abuse was even possible in their ranks. Decentralised structures compounded a “diffusion of responsibility” culture.

At the same time, an institutional “coercive harmony” saw many pastors and parishioners urge survivors to forgive their abusers – shunning them if they refused.

“They were construed as enemies of the church,” said Prof Martin Wazlawik, co-ordinator of the research.

Perhaps the most damning observation came at the end of Thursday’s heated press conference from Prof Dressing, an expert at combing Catholic priest personnel files for previous clerical abuse reports: “If you compare the sister churches, the EKD managed this worse.”

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Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin