Sexual abuse at odenwald school: a bitter cycle

Two new studies deal with the abuse at the Odenwald School. Much is reminiscent of the crimes of the Catholic Church.

The Odenwald School pursued an educational claim that differed from "ordinary" schools Photo: dpa

It was a strange coincidence: the so-called Abuse Conference, which is supposed to clean up the rampant worldwide sexual and mental violence against children in Catholic institutions, is meeting in the Vatican in Rome. At the same time, two new studies on the incidents of abuse at the Odenwald School in Hesse were published in Wiesbaden. According to these studies, it was not, as previously assumed, about 132 girls and boys who were sexually abused by teachers and employees of the reform educational showcase project, but an estimated 500 to 900.

Although these new figures go beyond all dimensions, it may be assumed that they still do not include all victims and that the number of unreported cases is significantly higher. The nature of sexual assaults – in church institutions, schools, boarding schools, sports clubs, in the family – is based on superiority and a power imbalance of the perpetrators towards the victims.

This is accompanied by threats and accusations that often keep victims silent. In addition, many victims of violence are so severely and permanently traumatized that any thought of their childhood and youth would catapult them back into the past. Out of self-protection, they therefore not infrequently avoid and refuse to talk about the most terrible experiences of their lives.

Between the Vatican and the Odenwald

Cynically, one could think that the authors of the two new Odenwald studies have waited for the Church Conference of Catholics to help the explosive studies receive the greatest possible attention. Originally, the results, which can be read in the book with the significant title "The Odenwald School as a Beacon of Reform Pedagogy and as a Place of Sexualized Violence", were to be published earlier.

The Hessian Ministry of Social Affairs assures that there is no intended temporal connection between the clerical conference in the Vatican and the press conference in Wiesbaden. It was simply not possible to agree on a date other than the end of last week.

A connection between the Catholic Church and the Odenwald School exists nevertheless. Both are institutions that claim a kind of unique selling point for themselves and are particularly open to a certain bourgeois elite. Thus, until its closure in 2015, the Odenwald School pursued an educational claim that was completely different from that of "ordinary" schools: students and teachers lived together in the boarding school "in family-like living groups," an idea that certainly exudes charm: freedom, equality, looseness. The school’s message: we are special here.

Underlying the nature of sexual assault is a power imbalance between the perpetrators and the victims.

Those who liked these ideals and who could afford the 2,370 euros per month for the boarding school plus extra costs for "school-accompanying training" were happy to send their children there. The seclusion and unquestioned isolation from the rest of society allowed structures to grow that were beyond any control. Thus, teachers and other school employees, both men and women, were able to go about their business unhindered for decades.

The Catholic Church is also a closed system that is hardly open to change. For years, Catholics have been demanding that their faith organization finally face reality and modernize its outdated sexual morals. But why should priests, cardinals and bishops do this? In doing so, they would give up power, influence and money and their unique selling point. What else, if not celibacy, sets these men apart from the male majority who do not submit to a celibate hardship? For a renunciatory life solely for God and the community.

It is a bitter cycle: Because of the prohibition of sex, men are denied a normal and openly lived love life. And because they don’t (can’t) have it, they take refuge in celibacy.

The "protective hand" that the power systems of the Catholic Church and the Odenwald School have spread over the perpetrators in their own ranks is a very, very dirty hand. One that will probably never become really clean.