Victims slam Church’s response to sex abuse

The Swiss Catholic Church has its own prevention guidelines akg images

People sexually abused by priests in Switzerland believe not enough is being done to tackle their cases and the bigger issue – this despite new prevention guidelines released by the Swiss Catholic Church in the wake of the global scandal.

This content was published on March 3, 2014

“Where are all the Swiss priests who have been accused?” demands Gérard Falcioni, a ski guide and herdsman from the village of Bramois in canton Valais.

Falcioni was himself a victim of abuse by a local priest from the age of five. Since 2002 he has been one of the few people in Switzerland to speak out against the church and tell his story in two books as well as in the Swiss media. But now he has had enough.

We’re up against a brick wall and we can’t do anything. They are free to do what they want,” he told

Other voices can also be heard questioning progress in tackling abuse within the church.

Jean-Marie Fürbringer, president of the Faire le Pas association which helps sexually abused victims, felt the church had opened their doors through dialogue after the scandal worsened as from 2010. “But our impression is that there are still problems and a culture of silence.”

“Church officials hold victims’ hands, express their regrets but there is no talk about compensation and it’s always extremely discreet. You have the impression that the church is not taking its role seriously,” he said.

He said the church was generally ill-informed about abuse and said priests he had talked to in Lucerne a couple of years ago were terrified the problem may be much worse than they imagined.

New directives

At the end of January, two weeks after the grilling of the Vatican in Geneva by United Nations child protection experts over the scale of sexual abuse by priests worldwide and a subsequent report (see infobox), the Swiss Catholic Church released the third edition of its own prevention guidelines “Sexual abuse in the religious context” for clerics and other officials.

This was their latest response to the abuse scandal. The new directives, the Bishops’ Conference says, have a stronger prevention and training emphasis, and cast a wider net to include religious groups and activities not previously under the responsibility of the dioceses. They should also ensure better transparency about information on priests moving around. New employees now have to present a copy of their clean police record.

“If you read the guidelines closely you will see that the UN criticisms don’t correspond to the consistent and transparent attitude of the Catholic Church in Switzerland,” said Joseph Bonnemain, the secretary of an expert commission set up to look into sexual abuse in the Swiss church.

UN panel's recommendations to Vatican

The Vatican should bring its Canon Law in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the Holy See ratified in 1990.

“In dealing with allegations of child sexual abuse, the Holy See has consistently placed the preservation of the reputation of the Church and the protection of the perpetrators above children's best interests."

"The Committee is gravely concerned that the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children, and has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by and the impunity of the perpetrators."

The panel urged the Vatican to stop the transfer of abusers and suspected abusers, which amounted to covering up the crimes. A Vatican commission created last year should investigate "all cases of child sexual abuse as well as the conduct of the Catholic hierarchy in dealing with them".

It called on the Vatican to "immediately remove all known and suspected child sexual abusers from assignment and refer the matter to the relevant law enforcement authorities for investigation and prosecution purposes".

The Vatican should provide training on child rights to all priests and members of Catholic orders and institutions working with children.

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Tip of iceberg

According to recent figures from the Swiss Bishops’ Conference, 193 victims came forward between 2009-2012 to report abuse in Swiss dioceses since 1960. The abuse was carried out by 172 priests and lay clergy.

Most cases concern the St Gallen, Chur and Basel dioceses. Very few are new, with the bulk announced in 2010 when media attention was at its peak. For the vast majority the statute of limitations has run out, priests have died and only a handful ended in convictions, defrocking or compensation.

Faire le Pas continues to ‘regularly’ welcome victims of abuse by priests but they represent only 5% of the total number of people who contact them, he noted. Fürbringer is convinced this is just the tip of the iceberg, saying people are fearful of coming forward.

Jacques Nuoffer, president of Groupe Sapec, which represents victims of sexual abuse by priests in French-speaking regions, said he was encouraged by some church officials’ attitudes and the directives and norms that “go in the right direction”.

“But their application is very slow and they are very regional. Each bishop does what they want,” Nuoffer, himself a victim of abuse by a priest in the Fribourg region, commented.

Reply from Vatican

The Vatican said the 2014 UN report on sexual abuse of children by clergy was distorted, unfair and ideologically biased.

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, responding to criticisms in the report on the Church's stance on homosexuality, abortion and contraception, also said the world body cannot ask the Church to change its "non-negotiable" moral teachings.

He told Vatican Radio that non-governmental organisations which favour gay marriage probably influenced the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to reinforce an "ideological line" in the report.

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“It takes time”

Bonnemain rejected this idea, however, describing the church’s attitude towards victims, their handling of reported and suspected cases as well as procedural norms as “more precise and complete” than in the past.

He said the new guidelines should provide a more balanced nationwide approach, but his commission has no monitoring or decision-making function: “We prefer to offer the dioceses and other religious organisations professional help so that gradually they tackle the issue of sexual abuse with the appropriate seriousness and skills. It’s a work of convincing people and encouragement. It takes time.”

Nuoffer is meanwhile determined to continue his fight for truth and justice for his personal case and for other victims. Contacts with the dioceses responsible for his perpetrator have so far been fruitless. In a letter from 2012 that Nuoffer shared with, the head of the Franco-Swiss Congrégation des missionaires de St François de Sales flatly turned down his request for information about his abuser and compensation. But Nuoffer remains undeterred.

“I want information about my case, recognition of the moral responsibility concerning the traumatism that I suffered and compensation,” he declared.

Last month he joined the Swiss Catholic Church’s commission on sexual abuse, which is examining the issue of compensation, as a victims’ representative. At the same time, he claims he has the support of a dozen parliamentarians from French-speaking Switzerland for his idea to set up an independent body to examine and mediate in sexual abuse cases by priests in the alpine nation. This would be similar to a successful arbitration centre set up in Belgium, which would be independent from the church, whose own abuse commission only has a consultative role. 

“We have to find solutions to compensate cases barred by limitation and to properly apply prevention measures. But as long as it’s the church that manages affairs nothing will move. There are still some bishops digging in their heels who are not at all favourable to a solution for compensation,” he declared.

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