In Germany, Confronting Child Sex Abuse From The Past

An independent commission is shedding light on years-old allegations of abuse by priests, swim coaches and others.

Frankfurt am Main
Frankfurt am Main
Thomas Jordan

BERLIN — A young boy's coach promises to give him special training to prepare for the national swimming championships. But when the boy changes into his swimming trunks, that's when it begins. The coach gropes him. And again. This goes on for six months.

Fifty years later, the boy — now a 60-year-old man — writes an email to his former swimming club. He doesn't want to go public, he explains. Doesn't want any compensation. He just wants to talk about what happened to him, and to make the trainers aware of the problem.

But the response he receives from the club leaves him shaken. "No one was prepared to speak to me," says the man, who chose to be referred to as Andreas. "And the email they sent back sounded like it had been written by a lawyer."

Sadly, the former swimmer's ordeal is hardly an isolated case in Germany, where since 2016, at the behest of the Parliament, an independent commission made up of experts and victims' representatives began looking into historical cases of sexual abuse against children in East and West Germany. Now the experts have published a set of guidelines for how to approach allegations of this nature.

The number of cases of child sexual abuse in Germany is shockingly high. According to researchers at Ulm University Hospital, there are an estimated 200,000 cases in amateur sports clubs alone. The same study estimates there are around 114,000 people affected within the Catholic Church, with similar numbers in the Protestant Church.

Andreas' case comes from one of the commission's publications, where victims have the opportunity to tell their stories. He is one of about 1,500 people who have contributed information.

"Victims often find that they are turned away by the institutions," says Sabine Andresen, the committee's chairperson. That then sets off a vicious cycle that many childhood victims are all too familiar with, the child development explains. "They experience the same powerlessness and rejection as before," Andresen adds.

The perpetrators must be named.

The committee's latest publication is about 50 pages long and sets out the most important areas to cover in a sexual abuse case. It contains a 13-point checklist that includes advice about legal issues, as well as how to put together and finance an investigative team.

"We want to give people direction, encouragement and the confidence to act," says Andresen.

The first step is always to determine what has happened. To do this, institutions need teachers, psychologists and doctors who are familiar with this kind of process, says social psychologist Heiner Keupp, a member of the commission. Keupp also advises going public with the cases, "so that the victims have the opportunity to be involved."

For the commission, dealing properly with abuse cases means clearly establishing who is responsible and analyzing which "processes, cultures and procedures allowed the sexual abuse to take place," says commission member Matthias Katsch. "That means that the perpetrators must be named," he adds.

Swimming in Berlin — Photo: laurent gauthier

From a legal perspective, that can be difficult, as many of the crimes took place so long ago that the perpetrators can no longer be prosecuted.

Also, the demand for transparency conflicts with rules protecting the identity of the accused. Brigitte Tilmann is the member of the commission who is responsible for legal issues. The former president of the Frankfurt High Court, she helped investigate abuses at the Odenwald School, where it was decided that they would publicly name the accused in their report.

"We risked it," says Brigitte TIlmann. And they did so, she explains, because the victims would have seen anything else as "a refusal to recognize and take responsibility for what was done to them."​

It's like assigning the fox to guard the henhouse.

Another problem that investigative teams often come up against is the difficulty of accessing documents that could support an allegation of abuse. Heiner Keupp, who dealt with cases of abuse in the Church, says there was "unbelievable chaos in the archives," especially since in many cases, former perpetrators are put to work in the archives.

"It's like assigning the fox to guard the henhouse," he says.

Brigitte Tilmann advises investigatory teams to get a written guarantee that they are allowed to access the archives of the institution in question. The institutions do not have a legal duty to allow them to do so.

In their recommendations, the experts call for schools, sports clubs and parishes to face up to cases of abuse in their past. "Their reaction to revelations of abuse is sometimes to throw themselves into prevention," says Katsch. "But it's not enough just to prevent future harm."

What institutions need to do, the experts argue, is face up to their past. "A hidden history of abuse works its way into an institution's present," says Andresen. It can eat a school up from the inside, in other words.

"The consequences of hushing something up stay with them for decades," says Brigitte Tilmann. The Odenwald School, which was closed down in 2015, is a case in point. "An institution that does not work through its past risks its own existence," she says.

Of course it can be very overwhelming for a small sports club when it is suddenly confronted with an allegation of abuse and must now treat its highly valued swimming coach as a possible perpetrator. The commission members understand that. That's why they recommend setting out principles in advance, seeking contact with the victims and involving authorities at a higher level, such as the regional sports association.

All the experts agree that there is one important step everyone can take, no matter how big or small the sports club, school or parish is: "Being prepared to listen," says Andresen. "That's the first thing. You need to hear what people say, and be prepared to believe their stories."

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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