Sweeping study finds 1,000 cases of sexual abuse in Swiss Catholic Church since mid-20th century
GENEVA (AP) — A sweeping, year-long study of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and others in Switzerland published Tuesday has turned up more than 1,000 cases since the mid-20th century, as the Swiss church becomes the latest in Europe to reckon with the abuse scandal.
With few exceptions, those accused of wrongdoing were all male. Nearly three-fourths of the documents examined showed the sexual abuse involved minors.
The report, commissioned by the Swiss Conference of Bishops and led by two University of Zurich historians, offers a deep look at the sexual abuse and harassment that has confounded the Catholic Church across the globe in recent decades — upending the lives of many victims and their families, and tarnishing the image of the institution.
The authors said in a statement that they identified 1,002 “situations of sexual abuse” in the Swiss church, including accusations against 510 people. The abuse, they wrote, affected 921 people.
“The situations identified surely amount to only the tip of the iceberg,” said the historians Monika Dommann and Marietta Meier in a statement.
Among other findings, which were admittedly not exhaustive, over half — 56% — of the cases of sexual abuse involved men or boys. Some 39% of victims were women or girls, while sourcing did not allow for the remaining 5% percent to be identified by gender, according to the study.
The researchers pored over thousands of pages of secret documents, assembled by church authorities since the mid-20th century. But they said many sources of information haven’t been fully studied. They cited some cases where documents were destroyed to cover up any alleged wrongdoing.
The study reported that abuse happened across the country. More than half of the cases took place during pastoral care and about 30% occurred in places like schools, homes and boarding schools. Some incidents took place during confessions or consultations. The researchers found many cases were “concealed, covered up or downplayed.”
“Church officials routinely transferred accused and convicted clerics, sometimes even abroad, in an effort to avoid secular criminal prosecution and secure reassignment for clerics,” they wrote. “In doing so, the interests of the Catholic Church and its leaders were placed before the well-being and protection of parishioners.”
The Swiss Conference of Bishops, which announced Sunday a Vatican-ordered investigation into claims of sexual abuse in Switzerland, and two other religious groups acknowledged in a joint statement that not enough was done to fight such abuse.
“As ecclesiastical institutions, we carry a great share of responsibility in the fact that so many people in the heart of the Church were victims of crimes, and often suffered the consequences for their lives, for themselves, their relationships, their private and professional development, their confidence in God, in life,” they said.
Members of the church hierarchy “must face up to this guilt” and the necessary consequences, they added.
The work will continue: The bishops’ conference and its partners said the team of researchers will receive another 1.5 million Swiss francs (about $1.7 million) to further pursue the study through 2026.
In their report, the researchers said the Holy See’s embassy in Switzerland, or nunciature, denied their request for access to its archives. They noted “major obstacles” when trying to consult the archives at the Vatican itself — and called for better access in the future.
“Today, the Pope and the Cardinals claim to want to shine a light (on the issue), but they continue to refuse access to the archives of the nunciature and the Vatican,” Jacques Nuoffer, the head of a Swiss support group for people who were abused in a religious context, told a news conference in Zurich where the report was presented.
The Holy See has long refused to open personnel files to outside investigators and has generally been shielded from being forced to do so by subpoena in abuse cases because it is a sovereign state under international law.
A few exceptions have been made in recent years. The Vatican shared archives dating back decades about particularly egregious cases of abuse in the French Catholic Church, and it opened up its archives to for an in-house investigation into the disgraced ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
The report marks the latest attempt by a national bishops’ conference to provide a historic reckoning with abuse that the hierarchy has known about for decades but rarely took action to sanction.
In recent years, such national reports in places like Germany and France have prompted demands for restitution for victims and fueled calls for the bishops, cardinals and religious superiors who covered up the abuse to be punished.
Associated Press Writer Nicole Winfield contributed to this report from Vatican City.