Ulrich Lehner publishes book on Jesuit abuse in modern times

Historian: Abuse in the Church is not a modern problem

Zürich/Notre Dame - The historian Ulrich Lehner believes it is demonstrably false that the 1968s were to blame for abuse in the church. In a book, he has analysed the abuse committed by the Jesuits in the 17th and 18th centuries – and discovered many parallels to today.

Published  on 20.02.2024 at 00:01  – by Annalena Müller

The German historian and Catholic theologian Ulrich L. Lehner from the renowned University of Notre Dame in the USA has written a book about sexual abuse among the Jesuits. Almost all of the problems facing the church in the abuse crisis were already known in the 17th and 18th centuries, he writes. The scientist and devout Catholic Lehner felt "really miserable" at times during his research, he says in the interview. He wrote the book because nobody else wanted to do it.

Question: Mr Lehner, why did you write "Staged Chastity"?

Lehner: I never intended to write this book. At conferences and publications since 2010, I have repeatedly pointed out that the history of sexual offences committed by the clergy before 1945 also needs to be thoroughly investigated. I have even indicated the sources and archives where information can be found. But nobody picked up the thread. So I felt compelled to do it myself, so to speak.

Question: What is "Staged Chastity" about?

Lehner: The book examines sexual abuse among the Jesuits in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Jesuits liked to present themselves as a particularly chaste order. This staging worked because cases of sexual violence against pupils and members of the order were kept secret. Offenders were simply deported to the secular clergy, even though this was against the order's statutes. Prominent offenders, on the other hand, were left in the order and covered up.

Question: That all sounds somewhat familiar.

Lehner: Yes, the mechanisms were similar to those we are experiencing in the current abuse crisis. Back then, there were also rumours that people didn't want to believe. People were simply transferred. The problem was also that the victims were never recognised as victims. The book also aims to encourage a rethink of the polemic against Jesuit schools as places of "pederasty", which historians have never taken seriously.

The theologian Ulrich Lehner.
Bild: ©KNA/Peter Ringenberg/University of Notre Dame

Theologian and church historian Ulrich Lehner calls working on the topic "terrible". "Even for me as an experienced historian, it was difficult to get my anger under control."

Question: You are an academic and a practising Catholic. What was it like for you to work on this topic?

Lehner: It was terrible. Especially when I was compiling the index for the book and had to list all the details again - what kind of penetration, whether with or without ejaculation and so on - I felt really miserable. The detailed reports, which I also drew from Spanish and Portuguese literature, constantly reminded me of the harrowing reports of German and American abuse in the present day.

As early as the 17th and 18th centuries, there were isolated rings of perpetrators who would pimp out their victims to each other, did not shy away from rape and only in rare cases were they punished with the full rigour of the law. Even for me as an experienced historian, it was difficult to get my anger under control.

Question: In the current crisis, the cover-up of abuse by those in positions of responsibility is a major issue. Was that also the case in the past?

Lehner: Yes, absolutely. The accusation of cover-ups has been levelled since the 19th century in particular. Of course, you have to take the historical context into account. Back then, the ideal of transparency as we know it today did not exist. Daniel Jütte recently did a phenomenal job of analysing this. But the fact that, even without this ideal, it was accepted that a priest who had been dismissed from the order would continue his misdeeds elsewhere is quite something.

Question: Can you explain in more detail how cover-ups took place back then?

Lehner: Jesuits who were full professed - and there were only a few of them - were only dismissed in extreme cases. They were usually transferred to other places. This was the case, for example, with Theoderich Beck (+ 1676). He was the confessor of Cardinal Friedrich von Hessen. Beck forced numerous grammar school pupils entrusted to him to have sex. When the Bavarian historian Karl Ritter von Lang published some of these cases for the first time in 1815, the Jesuits attacked him and accused him of lying or played down the sexual offences.

Question: Was the protection of your good reputation the top priority back then too?

Lehner: Yes - they didn't want to damage the reputation of the order by coming to terms with it. However, there were also whistleblowers within the order who could not reconcile sitting quietly with their conscience. They got many a case rolling in the first place.

Question: Can you describe a typical example of a case of abuse that you encountered in your research?

Lehner: The best known is the case of the Augsburg Jesuit Jakob Morell (+ 1727). Morell was a sex offender and abused pupils for decades. Many of them came from influential families, such as the Fugger family. When Morell was discovered, he was initially dismissed from the order. However, there was never any talk of prosecution or even imprisonment.

Question: What happened next for Morell?

Lehner: He was quickly reinstated. The general in Rome was so swayed by Morell's pleas that he accepted him back just one year later. Morell was transferred to the furthest corner of Hungary. But from there he was transferred to a different Austrian college every two years - for 27 years. In many towns, Morell was responsible for the grammar school pupils as their confessor. It is hard to imagine that such a sex offender would stop. He will only have become more cautious. This man probably abused pupils for almost 50 years.

„Papst Franziskus macht nichts besser.“

—  Zitat: Ulrich Lehner

Question: Especially in traditionalist circles, people like to say that abuse in the church is a modern problem that is the fault of 1968. Georg Gänswein is a famous proponent of this theory. What do you say to that?

Lehner: That is demonstrably false. Pius XII (1939-1958) was crowned pope by a man who the police in Rome assumed had been a pederast for decades. His predecessor Pius XI (1922-1939) is surrounded in almost all official photographs by two high-ranking clerics, about whom one can read similar things in police files. David Kertzer also mentions this in his book "The First Vicar". Perhaps the extent was smaller before 1968. I don't know and don't presume to make any statistical statements. But that there were such cases - and far more than assumed - is a fact.

Question: What reactions have you had to your book so far?

Lehner: I was particularly pleased with the goodwill and helpfulness of the Jesuit order. They are really interested in coming to terms with the past. So far I've only heard from colleagues in the field of history - and only positive things.

Question: As a historian, theologian and Catholic, what reforms would you like to see in the Catholic Church so that it can finally get to grips with the problem of abuse?

Lehner: Pope Francis is doing nothing better. You only have to look at the rehabilitation of Bishop John Nienstedt [Archbishop of Saint Paul and Minneapolis until 2015; editor's note] a few weeks ago. Ten years after his resignation, the faithful are now being asked, without a line of reasoning or any evidence, to trust the supreme Vatican court that there was nothing to the accusations against Nienstedt.

But trust is like a bridge that you use to cross a river. You only cross the bridge if you have good reason to believe that the planks are not rotten. As we have repeatedly fallen into the deep end in recent years because we blindly trusted the call from the other bank, Catholics today need good reasons to venture onto this bridge.

Question: A judgement without publishing the reasons for the judgement is no longer enough today? The Vatican bridge is too rotten after all the scandals and cover-ups?

Lehner: Exactly. But authoritarian as he is, Francis doesn't understand that. How can you trust someone for whom transparency in matters of abuse is a foreign concept - see Theodore McCarrick [former Archbishop of Washington and Cardinal who was dismissed from the priesthood; editor's note]? Or who promotes people to the highest offices who have demonstrably protected perpetrators of abuse, such as Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, the head of the Office for the Doctrine of the Faith. And who shows no sign of changing course, as the aforementioned Nienstedt case shows. This is no way to win back trust.

by Annalena Müller

The book

Ulrich L. Lehner: Inszenierte Keuschheit - Sexualdelikte in der Gesellschaft Jesu im 17. und 18. Jahrhundert (Reihe Frühe Neuzeit, Band 254), Verlag De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston 2024, hardcover, 59,90 Euro. ISBN: 9783111310985; ISBN for e-book: 9783111311142