A German vicar general has called for equal rights for women in Church leadership and an “open debate” on Catholic “fundamental questions”.

– Abuse crisis “only the tip of the iceberg” of “many other stories of disaster and suffering in the Church”

Klaus Pfeffer, vicar general of the Essen diocese, made the appeal in an article in a new book on the clergy sex abuse crisis, according to a press release from the local Church.

According to the ‘number two’ man in the diocese in Germany’s Ruhr region, there is a great “uneasiness” in the Church presently of which the priestly pedophilia cases of recent years – as horrifying as they have been – are “only the tip of the iceberg”.

Underneath that tip of the abuse crisis there are “many other stories of disaster and suffering in the Church”, Pfeffer denounced.

The senior Essen priest cited, for example, the “tremendous psychological pressure” reported by older Catholics that has “burdened their entire life” after an upbringing shaped by a Church “rigid, restrictive sexual morality tainted with negative value judgments”, or the various other impacts male-dominated power imbalances in the Church have had.

To counter, then, the widespread discomfort in the Church today Pfeffer insisted on the need to do away with “taboos” in the Catholic worldview and to “question exaggerated, false ideals” in theology and Church life.

– “Fearless conversation is a key that can initiate healthy change”

According to Pfeffer, “fearless conversation… is a key that can initiate a healthy change” in the Church away from the various crises presently afflicting it, beginning with a dialogue on “uncovering and overcoming the abuse of power” that exists in the institution.

A starting point for that open debate on unhealthy aspects of Church life and practice, the Essen vicar general suggested, should be the establishment of an “atmosphere of openness” among priests so that they “can honestly face… questions of their personal development and above all also their crises”, but also as a way of dismantling the clericalist “special world” priests often move around in.

Along with that need for and acceptance of honesty among priests, Pfeffer also stressed that other “fundamental questions” in the Church “must be openly debated” as well – a conversation that must involve a revised understanding of the ordained ministry and discussions on how “to succeed in a gender justice that gives women the same participation as men” in the future of the Church.

– “All those active in the Church have a joint responsibility to eliminate sexual violence”

For the Essen vicar general, tackling both clericalism and ways to better involve women in Church leadership is important both for Church renewal and in terms of finally ridding Catholicism of the scourge of clerical sexual abuse.

With regard to the priestly pedophilia plague, Pfeffer also warned that “sexual abuse in the Catholic Church has causes that go far beyond individual perpetrators” or even co-conspirators by negligence or omission, for which reason the faithful must be aware that aggressions can happen “anytime and anywhere”.

“Anyone could be a perpetrator – or be involved through complicity and looking the other way”, the Essen vicar general alerted.

Due to that ever-present danger of abuse, Pfeffer emphasised that “all those who are active in the Church have a joint responsibility to eliminate the breeding ground for sexual violence”.

The senior Essen cleric argued against those in the Church who complain that in the wake of the abuse crisis all priests seem to have been tarred with the same brush, and warned that “sometimes an attitude creeps in that considers some [anti-abuse] measures as an exaggerated expression of ‘general suspicion'” over the heads of clerics.

Pfeffer wrote, however, that that default wariness of priests has a plus side too, arguing that “precisely because sexual violence is present everywhere and can be cleverly hidden, a ‘culture of attentiveness’ is needed which unmistakably signals to potential perpetrators: ‘You have no chance with us!'”.

More on Novena on pushes for reform in Catholicism:

‘We Are Church’ Germany pleads for ‘synodal path’ reforms to continue despite COVID-19, “extremely irritating” Vatican parish instruction

German bishop alerts: “We can no longer build our Church life on traditions alone”

Catholic Women’s Council decries: “There is no justice in the Church as long as it is not realised in the equality of women and men”

Democracy, equal rights, trustworthiness… German priest urges Church to learn “basics of modern society” and regain relevance


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