Square or round? Reflections on the Discourses of Victims in the Church

Klaus Mertes is a Jesuit priest who had a long professional life in Jesuit education, from 1990 onwards until his recent retirement, as a campus-minister and rector in three of the German Jesuit Colleges.

From 2010 onwards he has also been courageously working on coming to terms with the church abuse scandal. Last August (2021) he received the ‘Theological Price’ of the Salzburg University Weeks for ‘breaking spirals of silence on the subject of abuse and for his persistent reflection on the systemic causes of abuse and how best to treat them’; see the reference to this award in the JCEP Newsletter, sept 2021: https://jesuits.eu/news/1839-jesuit-awarded-for-reflection-on-abuse

Klaus Mertes can be heard in the recording of our webinar, and his speech on the occasion of receiving his reward is published here, as an opportunity for in-depth reflection. The title refers to ‘connecting the square of confrontation with the round of cooperation’, thus creating a sustainable basis for communication between both sides.


Salzburg University Weeks, August 4, 2021, Klaus Mertes SJ

On June 26, 2021, the Independent Commission for the Reappraisal of Sexual Child Abuse took stock in the FAZ: “As in most other countries, it was victims of sexual violence in Germany who demanded the establishment of a reappraisal commission. In particular, the initiative „Square table“, which was also formed in linguistic distinction to the Round Table, was committed to this.”


The distinction between “round” and “square” was already at issue in the conversation that became the trigger for my letter to former students of Canisius College in early January 2010. Matthias Katsch reported on it 10 years later: “We expressed our wish to have access to the school’s alumni mailing list. Because we wanted to reach our classmates and, beyond that, the presumably affected cohorts of the seventies and early eighties. Mertes immediately made it clear: He would not give us this access. “If I do, I’ll write a letter myself,” he explained. But he would have to think it through first.”1 I perceive in retrospect that at that time I distanced myself from the idea of starting with a “round” cooperation, that is, writing a letter together. Then, since 2010, the question has stayed with me, which model of communication between representatives of the institution and those affected would be the appropriate one for coming to terms with abuse, the round or the square model, cooperation or confrontation, or both at the same time, somehow intertwined?

A state institution can invite to a round table, as long as it is an independent neutral body, which is not involved in the abuse in the church institution (although it is involved in its own – but that is another topic). The affected institution, on the other hand, cannot. The accusation of the affected confronts the institution. In this respect, the process necessarily starts squarely, with confrontation.2 This does not mean that there is no desire and will to cooperate on both sides, including on the part of those affected. However, in the case, this desire sets new old traps, especially for those affected, which result in repetitions of the abuse during the phase of coming to terms with it. This has become visible in recent months in the Archdiocese of Cologne: The project to involve those affected in the reappraisal turned into their instrumentalization.3

This failure is not an argument against the participation of those affected. It just adds: The goal of reappraisal is always to take back the exclusion of the victims from the community4, which was given with the abuse. The desire to lift the exclusion resonated with the victims in 2010 in the conversation at the Canisius College: They wanted to participate in the celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of their baccalaureate in the fall of 2010, making sure that the perpetrators would not be invited, and that they themselves would no longer have to conceal their history to guarantee the rotten peace in their baccalaureate class. Reappraisal is also about the possibility of “rounding off”. If it is to succeed, the will to cooperate must be inherent in the process of coming to terms with the past and must be appreciated. If reappraisal processes always remain in confrontation, fall back into it, even deepen it and create new injustice, they will fail. This, too, has been observed time and again in recent years.

So what is the significance of the will to cooperate and the will to confront on both sides in the process of coming to terms with the past? And what does this mean for the respective understanding of roles? There is no simple answer to this question. The abuse crisis, according to Hans Joachim Sander, “has not exacerbated the pro-contra binarity. Rather, it has dissolved it.”5 He finds the image of the Möbius strip for this: It is “prima facie a ribbon that has a top and a bottom as well as a left and a right side. But because of the twisting of the ribbon, the side at the top is directly connected to the side at the bottom, if one only continues to follow the ribbon. Likewise, the left edge twists into the right edge as it is traversed further.”6 With binary codings (right-wrong, good-bad, round-cornered) one does not get further there, even more, one falls from one failure into the next. This also applies to the relationship between confrontation and cooperation between those affected and the institution in the phase of reappraisal.

I recognize in the continuing twists two themes that are also important for theological reflection. First, there is the theme of Pauline “sin” (hamartia), understood not as the transgression of the law by individuals, but – in the singular – as the power that makes us sin, as Paul constructs the concept of sin in the singular. The abuse of power produces the same thing as Adam’s sin: it opens the door to a power that continues to work in the system, permeating everything, or rather: contaminating, poisoning, twisting, and above all: rendering powerless with regard to the good. “The good that I want, I do not do, and the evil that I do not want, I do.” (Rom 7:14) The cycle of failure is also and precisely an experience of the futility of well-intentioned efforts to get out of that very cycle. The power of abuse twists all efforts to break precisely this power in direct confrontation. On the one hand, the church can be assured from the outside that it has done a great deal in the area of education, prevention and help, including changes in canon law procedures. I don’t want to go into detail about that here, and I certainly don’t want to deny it. But on the other hand, all this is not enough, depending on how one determines the goal of the reappraisal; even more: all successes are always overshadowed, for example, by efforts to use what has been done well to polish up one’s own image. Standing under the power of hamartia, the behavioral patterns that are supposed to be overcome are repeated. Self-salvation under the power of evil does not work.

I find the other theological theme in the biblical motif of temptation: the diabolos is the twister, the perverter. He proceeds as clumsily as he does cunningly. He speaks undercomplexly in complex situations, or conversely, overcomplexly in simple situations. He is the know-it-all, the “expert” par excellence, naturally without any background experience of his own, but only with tactical intent. From the internal perspective of a responsible position, I have therefore occasionally saved myself from the over- or under-complexity of the various pieces of advice, expert opinions and voices in the mantra: “Whatever I do, it is wrong. So I do the wrong thing that I think is right.”

The same is true of theological interpretations. They can be undercomplex or overcomplex. At its core, after all, the temptation motif is about the simple question of trusting God: Where do I encounter God, his will, his love? It becomes complex because there is someone who disguises himself as an “angel of light,” as Paul classically puts it. He appears as Christ- or also as God-actor. In relation to abuse, children and young people and in general souls searching for God are led into traps by holders of spiritual power, by their aura and their “expertise”.7 Their trust in God is abused by the perpetrators directing it to their person and then using it. This perverse game does not simply stop now in the phase of reappraisal. The critical task of theology is to see through and reject the pious-sounding draperies and the theological presumptions that continue to err. Take, for example, the handling of the concept of “forgiveness” or even that of “love of one’s enemies,” undoubtedly indispensable, central concepts of the Gospel. In 2019, an incident in the Diocese of Münster made national headlines. A priest preached about forgiveness and exhorted the congregation to forgive priestly abusers as well. Several people then stood up and left the room in protest. They wanted to draw attention to the fact that those affected were also sitting in the room.8 In this case, several under-complex approaches to coming to terms with the situation can be recognized. And the decision to get up and walk out is the decision that is as simple as it is appropriate to the complexity of the confusion.

So, because the situation is so entangled, there remains first of all the possibility to see through the tempting character of the many good-sounding proposals that want to show the seductively simple way out of the entanglement – and to say no to it, without being able to say right away whether and how reconciliation could become positive. Negative theology is an art of denial, it protects the positive by denial, although the positive is hidden from it. To use the classical phrase, “Si comprehenderis non est Deus.” (Augustine)

If we put the two themes (hamartia and diabolos) together, we see that the institution cannot deal with abuse on its own. Rather, it is led into ever new traps by precisely these attempts. The positive reverse side of this realization is: An authority “from outside” is needed to somehow connect the square of confrontation with the round of cooperation. Theologically speaking, this is a plea for the grace or gift character of successful communication between the victim and perpetrator sides. For the spiritual view, this is an invitation to pay attention to the signs of the times, to the gaps that suddenly open up in the cycle of failure. Structurally, this leads to the need for an independent authority to deal with the past. Since the beginning of this year, the Church in Germany has been attempting to take the first steps towards letting go, in particular letting go of the idea that it can itself bridge the gap between the perpetrator side and the victim side, with “Standards for an Independent Reappraisal” and with the “Independent Commission for Recognition Payments” (UKA). Whether the approaches are sufficient or not remains to be seen. Ecclesiologically, at any rate, there is still enough to be done, as can also be seen from episcopal statements that have recently pleaded for the introduction of administrative and disciplinary courts in the church in order to be able to deal with official failures according to transparent and fair procedures – this, too, is a fruit of the admitted powerlessness of not being able to monarchically get out of the traps of the Adamic sin of abuse by one’s own efforts.


Jörg Fegert, director of the Clinic for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry/Psychotherapy in Ulm, reports in retrospect on the congress “Towards Healing and Renewal,” which took place in February 2012 at the Gregoriana in Rome with the participation of bishops and those affected. “A church service also took place within the framework of this congress, which attracted a great deal of attention, and for me it was an incisive experience, since from my point of view it showed the speechlessness and helplessness of the clergy and the instrumentalization of those affected … In the struggle to find the authors for the program (e-learning), I was aware of many things that reached me emotionally at the moment of the church service with those affected. From my point of view inadequate picture metaphors, with a slide projection of atomic bomb pictures and other catastrophes, were supposed to describe the misery of the people after the fall of man and to make sexual abuse appear as one of many catastrophes. In this service, the victims were given a role which, for my feeling, aimed at reconciliation much too early. The church music was banal and not appropriate to the situation. Thus the liturgy with pseudo-modern interjections like photo projection and naive, contemporary choir music became for me an expression of encrustation and speechlessness. Again and again, Bach’s motet Der Geist hilft unserer Schwachheit auf (The Spirit helps our weakness) ran through my head, and especially the line denn wir wissen nicht, was wir sollen beten. That’s exactly what it was: there was no theological position on sexual abuse. They didn’t know what to pray. But instead of resorting to inexpressible groans, here were inadequate metaphors of annihilation visually projected … That evening in Rome, I got the impression, abuse is something the churches really have nothing to do with, it has nothing to do with their reasons for believing. An inner compass was missing that can’t be bought in from the outside, but must emerge from spiritual discourse.”9

Church language fails not only because it is no longer true in the situation of abuse, but because it wants to make words at all, when the words have just been taken from it. For the time being, all that remains is “groaning that is inexpressible” (Rom 8:26). There are several reasons for this. On the one hand, perpetrators of abuse and also cover-ups have made use of ecclesiastical language for their actions and omissions, thus contaminating it. One cannot withdraw from the abuse of language simply by using it correctly. The abuse was more than just outward use. Ecclesiastical language now triggers trauma in those affected. It no longer comforts or edifies. The institution’s attempt to give language to the experiences of the victims themselves is also ineffectual because the differences in perception between the two sides are too deep. The chasm between perpetrator and victim perspectives cannot be bridged from one side to the other. Neither side has a language at its disposal that could be used to vault the gap completely.

In addition, the church is denied its usual roles in relation to the victims. There is a difference between the Samaritan turning to the beaten man at the wayside, when he has been plundered by others, and plundering him or her himself. In the latter case, compassionate language, pity for the victims, “concern for the victims,” as it is so often said in official church pronouncements, are no longer true. The helper position is closed. Even the Christological appreciation of the victim status (Christ at the side of the victims, Christ as victim in solidarity with the victims) does not free from speechlessness.

At the center of the problem I am trying to address here is the church’s treatment of the judgment parable in Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 25:31-46). It is often used in ecclesiastical discourse to incorporate the reality of the afflicted into Christological discourse: Crucified teddy bears, “child abuse is God’s abuse,” “the afflicted evangelize us,” “the afflicted are the kings,” and so on. With such imagery, the church works its way into proximity to the victims via Christology. On the one hand, this is understandable, insofar as the Church may assume that she is not separated from Christ despite the shameful crimes in her ranks and in her name; so she seeks Christ among the victims. In the situation of abuse, however, this leads into traps. Affected persons experience such language as assault. At the same time, affected persons report that they encounter an inappropriate bias on the church side, a bias that they in turn experience as a withdrawal of closeness. Again, a strangely twisted starting point. “In the abuse, my longing for closeness was abused, and now I am denied closeness because I was abused.” The bias appears as the reverse side of an encroaching projection of the Tremendum et Fascinosum onto the affected, which is not coherent. Incidentally, it is then also no longer a big step to then reconnect with those affected in the self-manufactured closeness to them in a maximum condemnation language about perpetrators, as could also be heard, for example, in Pope Francis’ speech at the conclusion of the abuse summit in February 2019. But the church cannot define itself away from the square constellation in this way or any other. Rather, in the constellation of abuse, the very opposite message strikes her from the parable of judgment: “Away from me.” (Mt 25:41) I also hear in it, “Stay on the other side of the ditch.”

But what remains on the other side of the ditch? I mean: Christ’s closeness to the sinful Church in His solidary substitution. “The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for the many.” (Mt 20:28) In this perspective, Christ stands precisely not vicariously for the victims, but vicariously for the sinner’s side, that is, for the other side of the ditch, making atonement. This presupposes the self-critical view of one’s own ugly side, precisely not the narcissistically transfiguring, classically speaking: Confession as well as active repentance afterwards. That is why it is right, especially from a Christological point of view, that the church has embarked on the path of coming to terms with the past. If it did not do so, it would not follow the Son of Man who was advancing.

Again, all this is not to be understood – there is no end to differentiation – in the sense of a privatization of the relationship with Jesus past the persons concerned, as it was claimed and granted to them in a misguided practice of confession and absolution by offenders. Nor is the closeness of Christ in any way denied to those affected, if he is also close on the other side. It is only a different closeness, not the same. A central aspect of the incarnation becomes visible: Christ enters into the logic of the ransom payment, which is to be made from the sinner’s side: acceptance of consequences of failure, especially also vicariously, conversion, not only individually, but in relation to one’s own self-understanding as an institution. That is why it is indispensable for the reappraisal to speak about the favoring systemic factors, which must be rethought in the sense of “metánoia”. Whoever speaks here of “abuse of abuse” has not understood something essential. “What is crooked shall become straight” (Is 404), what is angular round, and this can succeed if one neither evades nor only wants to do it oneself, but remains in the following of Christ.


1 Matthias Katsch: Damit es aufhört – vom befreitenden Kampf der Opfer sexueller Gewalt in der Kirche, Berlin 2020, p.51f.

2 In 2010, the victims of the Jesuit schools twice invited representatives of the Jesuit Order to a “Corner Table” in spring and fall.

3 Cf. FAZ, 14.11.2020: Abused Affected Persons.

4 Institution is not “only” institution, but represents and structures communities.

5 Hans Joachim Sander: Believing Differently, Not Nevertheless – Sexual Abuse of the Catholic Church and the Theological Consequences, p. 135.

6 Ibidem, p.17

7 Cf. most recently Herderkorrespondenz 8/2021, Statisten beim Fest, p.26 ff.

8 For reporting see katholisch.de, 9.7.2019

9 Jörg Fegert, Sexual abuse: empathy instead of clericalism, in: STIMMEN DER ZEIT 3/2019, p.199f


Note: In Germany, at the request of those affected, out of respect for the survivors of the Holocaust, we do not speak of “survivors” but of “affected persons”.

You can go back to the main page by clicking in here “Protecting the Minors on Our Schools” , or alternatively you can see all articles for reflection clicking on the following tag Protecting the Minors in our Schools Safeguarding Conference