Why do some people stop being abusive

At first it is a shock when there are cases of sexual violence in a community. But what happens when the headlines have faded? Ulla Stollenwerk accompanies the lengthy process of processing in the communities.

DOMRADIO.DE: What does it mean for a parish when it learns that its pastor is suspected of having done sexualised violence to children?

Ulla Stollenwerk (diocesan office for pastoral support in the Archdiocese of Cologne): I assume that most can imagine part of it. It's a shock. Most of those who had to do with the pastor, but also those who had little contact with the congregation, are seriously irritated, and some people may even be traumatized. Sexual abuse is always associated with strong emotions. When it concerns someone you know or who is known in public close by, then strong emotions arise immediately.

This creates anger at the heinous crime that is accused. Usually you don't even know whether it actually took place. But the accusation alone is enough. Anger over this heinous crime. Possibly anger at the accusation against a person you adore yourself very much. That also triggers anger.

DOMRADIO.DE: Does the desire for clarification also arise?

Stollenwerk: Yes. Of course, people want to know as much as possible. Is there anything to the allegations? How can I tell if there is something to it? People want security, whether and how they can believe the information, want to get an idea of ​​the situation for themselves.

In the case of sexual abuse, however, the protection of those affected comes first. In other words, one should not explain the details of the allegation or the act so intensively. That in turn triggers emotions. So the peace that may have existed in a parish before - the usual normal parish life, you meet in groups, you celebrate the liturgy - this peace is deeply disturbed. That triggers sadness.

The peace in oneself may be disturbed because one no longer knows what to believe. One is afraid of the unknown. It is a huge mixture of feelings, insecurity and irritation. As I said, sometimes even to the point of traumatization.

If the accusation is still relatively timely, the question also arises: Would we have had to do something differently in the community, should we have noticed something? The question of guilt also plays a role.

DOMRADIO.DE: How do you deal with this question of possible complicity?

Stollenwerk: First of all, it has to be endured and appreciated. Just like all the emotions that play a role. You can't just wipe that off the table. When this question of guilt comes up, the question must be asked: What happened? What did you observe? And then perpetrator strategies have to be discussed. Even if the presumption of innocence applies and must be taken into account, it is explained how perpetrators normally proceed. There is a special scheme for choosing those affected, for lulling the environment into security. This needs to be clarified. You have to look closely at these dynamics and observe them. Has any of that happened here?

DOMRADIO.DE: What does this public mean for the victims? There may be people in the community who have also suppressed that, who have not yet dared to come forward and report it. Is that also a possibility for those affected by sexual violence to get in touch now?

Stollenwerk: Absolutely. The diocese expressly calls for this. Those affected by sexual abuse may have been completely unaware of what was happening for years or decades. That is one of the reasons why the state limitation period has now been extended. Sexual abuse is only statute barred 30 years after the person concerned has turned 18. It has to do with a protective mechanism in the brain. When I have a traumatic experience, my brain first breaks this experience down into individual fragments, stores them in different places in these small fragments and I am no longer conscious of it. This is called splitting off and dissociation.

But if something - and if it's just a smell, a word, a certain light, a posture, however - reminds me of one of the fragments suddenly reactivated, then an irritation, possibly a new trauma, sets in again. And then the person begins to think about it: What is that all of a sudden with me? As a rule, it cannot be classified at first. And then, with good therapy, the picture sometimes reassembles. Not in every case.

That's why it sometimes takes so long. Why those affected also say: Now I realize what happened to me back then. That has nothing to do with the fact that they are free riders, as one or the other might think. This is why the following question is asked: Are there any other people affected? If so, would they like to get in touch?

DOMRADIO.DE: The Archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Woelki, has now promised clarification that names will also be named who were involved in covering up these crimes. How important is it for the communities and also for those affected that information is provided and that these names are also mentioned?

Stollenwerk: This is existentially important for those affected because they may have turned to the diocese years or decades ago and asked for help, but did not receive this help. It is the same as with family abuse. If a child is abused by a relative, it goes to the mother and the mother says: You are just imagining it. It's almost like another abuse. So it is existentially important for those affected that they are believed and that this also has consequences - and that is just as important for the communities.

DOMRADIO.DE: Now the people may have celebrated their faith together with the pastor for decades. The pastor married her, baptized her children, and buried her parents. How can you look back on it now when that comes out?

Stollenwerk: All positive experiences that I have with a person can and should remain positive, even if this person is suddenly accused of something very terrible. If I was happy at the baptism and the wedding ceremony back then and still experience my marriage as good today and am happy that my child was baptized - that will not be invalid. There is no one who is all good or who is all bad. We all make mistakes, including priests. I have to take the uncertainty that sets in seriously. I have to think about it well. But it cannot be that there is only one possibility, namely to condemn the human being as a whole.

DOMRADIO.DE: But you can understand that this also shakes your faith, right?

Stollenwerk: I think it depends a little on the image of the priest I have. Can I also see the priest as a human being? Or is he just God's representative for me? If he is only God's representative, my faith is deeply shaken.

But if I can also see in him a person who has a task for which he has been commissioned, then it may be easier for me to hold on to my faith.

DOMRADIO.DE: Now you support the pastoral care in the affected communities and also the communities themselves. How do you approach the people? What can you do there?

Stollenwerk: We have actually been involved in supporting people, communities and institutions in which sexual abuse has happened or has only been accused since 2010. Even then, the German Bishops' Conference already had a passage in its framework guidelines - now it is called regulations - which provides that support should be offered to the communities and institutions concerned. This is what we do.

That means we're going out. We carried out over 90 different consultations in 46 different cases. In "irritated systems" after abuse, we offer advice for the management level, for the teams, for committees, for groups. We support these people - or groups - to be able to work again after the first shock. When I am in a shock situation, my ability to work is often limited. Then I may get hectic because I don't have my head free to think or I become paralyzed. So that's where we support you to get yourself back to good working ability.

We do this by explaining a lot of what is currently going on: It will probably not be over quickly, be prepared for a long process. We support this by promoting a differentiated point of view. Like I just said: no one is all good or all bad. In the same way - this is almost the rule - there are tendencies towards division in the communities. The ones who worshiped the accused and cannot or do not want to believe the allegations. The others who believe the allegations. It is important to accept such divisions first. And then it is important to deal with it well. And that is only possible if I take a differentiated look and appreciate emotions.

DOMRADIO.DE: How can these divisions be overcome again in the long term?

Stollenwerk: Bridges can only be built by trying to understand these people from their point of view. I mean by appreciating emotions. Yes, I can understand that someone who admires the pastor very much cannot bear it at all that someone else makes these terrible accusations. I can understand that. I can also understand that someone who believes those affected says: Their protection is the most important thing.

We strive to understand those affected and to believe and see: What will happen now? That comes first. Of course, unless the opposite is proven, the presumption of innocence also plays a role. Let's assume that the accusation proves to be inconclusive, not justified. Then how can rehabilitation happen? That must also be taken into account. And we support the communities in this process, which is certainly a very, very difficult one, with expertise in the topic, with an outside perspective and with communication skills, so that the community can deal with the situation as constructively as possible.

DOMRADIO.DE: Then how can a church find its way back to normal church life?

Stollenwerk: It may be similar to what happens after a serious injury. When I am seriously injured, there are scars that I will live my life with. I have to expect that this is a lasting insecurity. I have to acknowledge this reality, first of all as a leader in the church. They really have to realize that. Only when this is realized can other people also realize it. And that is the basic requirement for some form of healing. Although I always have to assume that afterwards it will never be the same as it was before. And that's just as well. Because that strengthens the sensitivity that care is taken that something like this cannot happen again.

DOMRADIO.DE: Take emotions seriously and listen. Can you sum it up like that?

Stollenwerk: I would like to add: and explain and classify the dynamics that are experienced. And taking each other seriously always includes speaking to one another, not about one another. Do not judge yourself, even if I may not share the position of the other person. We still have to keep in touch and try to understand.

Interview conducted by Johannes Schröer.