Article: Nazi Germany Immorality Trials / Sex abuse crisis

Nazi Germany Immorality Trials/Sex abuse crisis article, by Donal Anthony Foley

The renewed sexual abuse allegations made against Jimmy Savile have once againmade the headlines, and also reminded people of double standards at the BBC. It pursued a policy of attacking the Church about its failings in dealing with the sex abuse crisis in the past, and yet did nothing to put its own house in order, especially regarding Savile, who was promoted to celebrity status by the Corporation, while at the same time carrying out many of his assaults on BBC premises.

In reality, the media generally have not been slow to publicise any failings on the parts of a very small minority of the clergy, almost to the point of obsession, even if the events in question happened many years ago. This, of course, is not to deny the seriousness of the offences, nor that some individuals have suffered horrendous abuse at the hands of clerical abusers, and that much more should have been done about this by Church officials. But, having said all that, there has generally been a lack of balance in the media when these issues have been dealt with.

If we go back in history, we can see that this unbalanced approach is not new, and that a disturbing precedent for this attitude can be seen in the way the Nazis used sexualallegations to try and undermine the Church in the 1930s.

To understand why this happened, it is important to realise that Nazism as a cult revolved around the person of Hitler, and indeed a pseudo-religion was created with Hitler as its focus; this found its most important expression at the Nazi party rallies at Nuremburg.

To illustrate the extraordinary nature of this cult, consider this quote from a speech made in February 1937, by the Nazi Robert Ley, the head of the German Labour Front, and a man with a doctorate in Chemistry: “Adolf Hitler! We are linked and united with you alone! In this hour we seek to renew our vow to you: we believe on this earth in Adolf Hitler alone. We believe that National Socialism alone is the redemptive faith for our people. …And we believe that …Almighty God has sent us Adolf Hitler, so that Germany shall have eternal security.”

The cult of Hitler, and Nazi ideology in general, could tolerate no rivals, and so a conflict with Christianity, and the Catholic Church in particular, was inevitable. Unfortunately, the Church was handicapped to some extent by memories of the nineteenth century Kulturkampf (“Culture war”) waged by Bismarck against it: thus German Catholics in the 1930s wanted to prove they could be good Catholics and good Germans. There were, though, those in the Church who clearly saw the abyss into which Nazi doctrines would lead Germany, and so by the mid-thirties an ideological war had developed between the Church and the Nazi state.

This was played out in many ways, but most tellingly by means of a campaign of vilification in the Nazi Press against the Catholic clergy in particular.

Papers such as the Volkischer Beobachter, the main Nazi newspaper, or Das Schwarze Korps, the official SS newspaper, entertained their readers with lurid allegations of sexual immorality amongst the clergy and in religious institutions. They also reported on the “immorality trials” which were taking place in the courts, and which were judiciously spaced out so as to give the impression of an unending catalogue of clerical misbehaviour.

The aim of all this was to blacken the reputation of clergy, monks and nuns. The Gestapo also used methods of entrapment. In May 1936, The New York Times reported how priests were being called to administer the last sacraments in hotel rooms, but on arrival would be confronted by a prostitute. Photos would then be taken and produced in court to back up trumped-up charges of immorality.

Das Schwarze Korps, in an article published during this period, railed against the Church as follows: “It is the pestilential stench of a putrefying world; it stinks to heaven. We are referring to all those scandalous proceedings in those Church circles, both within and without the monasteries, in the midst of which not one crime is lacking, from perjury through incest to sexual murder…”

But the state controlled press was careful not to report anything about the large number of cases involving members of the Nazi party who were accused of such offences.

So double standards in the secular media are nothing new.

What the authorities hoped for was that such reporting, and the show trials, would break the hold of the Church on the minds of many Catholics, and turn them towards Nazi ideology. In reality though the effects were minimal and the number of proven cases in the immorality trials was very small. In some respects these attempts to smear the clergy backfired, and rather led to a new spirit of sympathy amongst many Catholics for their priests, and a renewed sense of loyalty to the Church. When Hitler realised this, he ordered that there were to be no new large scale immorality trials of Catholic priests.

When, however, Pope Pius XI’s encyclical, Mit Brennender Sorge (“With Burning Concern”), was secretly smuggled into Germany in March 1937, and read out in every Catholic church in the country, Hitler was enraged. Amongst other things, the encyclical protested against the increasing oppression the Church was facing in Germany, and it led Hitler to order a resumption of the trials of Catholic priests for alleged currency and immorality offences.

The Nazis now turned to a strategy of persecution, repression and intimidation in order to subvert the influence of the Church, and a special Gestapo section, Section IV B, was set up with to deal with “Political Churches, Sects and Jews.” Tragically, amongst its officers were three former Catholic priests, who were able to suggest novel ways to intimidate the Church because of their inside knowledge.

The difference between then and now, of course, is that there has been no need to put on show trials, since sadly there have been many undoubted cases of clerical abuse in recent years. But what is significant is that the sort of mindset displayed by the Nazis in their attempts to blacken the Church is still very much present in sections of the media. It is really a hatred of the Church expressed in an unbalanced focus on the crimes of a relatively small number of clerics, despite the fact that the rate of offending has been as bad or even worse in the case of other ministers of religion, or amongst other professionals with access to children. The tendency, with a few honourable exceptions, has been for the mainstream media to portray the Church in a negative light, and focus excessively on clerical abuse cases.

Perhaps one of the few good things to come out of this whole business is that the Savile furore may prompt a rethink amongst sections of the media, and thus more objective reporting about the Church in future.

This article appeared initially in the Catholic Times.