A Vatican child protection expert has said that “of course” clergy sex abuse is “one of the main reasons” why people are leaving the German Church.

– “People notice that on the one hand things are said but on the other, structural change is hardly visible”

German Jesuit priest, theologian and psychologist Hans Zollner analysed with Cologne archdiocesan news website Domradio the new statistics the German Bishops released last Friday that showed that the number of Catholics saying farewell to the Church increased 26.2% in 2019, to a total of 272,771 people.

A number of German bishops, including Bishop Felix Genn of the Münster diocese, have already connected the mass exodus with clergy sex abuse in the German Church.

The pedophilia crisis in the German Church was revealed in its full horror in a 2014-2018 independent study carried out by university researchers that concluded that 3,677 children and juveniles had been abused by 1,670 clerics between 1946 and 2014.

In the face of findings like those of that study, coupled with all the Church talk of “zero tolerance” for clergy sex abuse, people make the decision to leave the Church because “they notice that on the one hand things are said and efforts have been on the way for decades [but that] on the other hand, a structural change is not or hardly visible”, Zollner explained.

– Consistency in child protection required of all Catholics – not just bishops and priests

To turn back the tide of Church departures – but more importantly, to do away with the scourge of child abuse in the Church forever – Zollner shared with Domradio some concrete advice.

“What the Church as a whole can do, and what all those responsible for the Church can do – who are not only bishops or priests, but also lay people – is to act consistently”, the Jesuit expert explained.

That consistency in the fight against pedophilia, he continued, means that all involved with the Church in any capacity “actually do what they say when they talk about coming to terms with and preventing abuse”.

Catholics must integrate corrective and preventive procedures “into the structure, into the institution”, Zollner continued: “into the procedures of church institutions of every kind, from schools to parishes, to charitable institutions, to homes for the elderly, to all kinds of spiritual activities, so that people can see that they are in a safe space and also know that responsibility is taken where injustice has occcurred”.

– For many allowing independent investigations “a litmus test” of whether Church really committed to justice or just paying “lip service”

The move towards greater Church transparency and accountability in its handling of clergy sex abuse is already well underway in Germany.

The Bishops’ Conference there agreed in April with the German government’s independent commissioner for sexual abuse issues, Johannes-Wilhelm Rorig, to a series of fixed and transparent rules for investigating current and historical clergy sex abuse cases in Germany’s 27 dioceses.

“That is indeed an important step”, Zollner said of the agreement between commissioner and bishops, adding that he hoped the accord “will give a boost” to the German Bishops’ long-promised and long-awaited commitment to allowing independent investigators to reappraise Church archives.

“For many people”, Zollner highlighted, whether or not Church authorities allow independent investigations of clergy abuse allegations “is the litmus test to show that all efforts in prevention are also based on a search for justice and are not simply lip service” to child protection concerns.

More on Novena on the wave of exits from the German Church:

German bishop blames mass Church desertions on tired old parish-centred pastoral model

Pope encourages German Church to make “good progress” in synodal path reform process

Theologians blast “naive and clueless” German bishops over proposed changes to seminarians’ training

German Bishops pledge “courageous changes” to stem hemorrhage of faithful


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.