How a monastery is tackling a legacy of abuse within its walls

  • People
  • Thursday, 29 Feb 2024

An aerial view of the Triefenstein monastery, the headquarters of the Christustrager Brotherhood, in Germany. Photos: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/dpa

Some 70km southeast of Germany's buzzing financial hub Frankfurt lies the Triefenstein monastery, located on a secluded estate on the river Main in Bavaria.

It's home to the Christustrager Bruderschaft, a Protestant community of monks who are currently trying to tackle the darkest chapter in their monastery's history: Sexual abuse by a former prior.

The painful secret was long hidden, until, five years after the death of a co-founder, the Bavarian community accused the former monastic superior of sexual abuse.

They say he abused at least eight brothers, including at least one who was not yet of age, between 1963 and 1995.

"This is now part of the legacy of our community," says Brother Christian Hauter, speaking from the brotherhood's headquarters in Triefenstein.

"We have to own up to what others did wrong."

The Christustrager monks are being unusually open about this dark chapter by publicly addressing the issue.

But it only comes after a protracted period of suppression and silence.Hauter says back then, the brothers were not used to talking to each other or even publicly about problems.Hauter says back then, the brothers were not used to talking to each other or even publicly about problems.

"We were blind to the dark side of our first prior for many years, it took us far too long to see through him as an impostor, especially in spiritual matters," the Brotherhood's leader wrote in an open letter to around 6,000 friends and companions.

"We thought that strict obedience was the right thing to do," says Hauter, who worked under the former prior for several years.

"I am a perceptive person, but I didn't realise others were suffering."

Details of what the victims had to live through can now be read online, thanks to a team of experts commissioned by the community.

The 99-page report describes a sophisticated system of abuse, with abuse of power, spiritual abuse and sexual abuse intertwined.

Shortly before or after communion, pastoral care or confession, the former prior is said A view of the Triefenstein monastery courtyard.A view of the Triefenstein monastery courtyard.

"Back then, we brothers were not used to talking to each other or even publicly about problems," says Hauter.

Through his authoritarian style of leadership, the former prior created a climate of fear.

Canon law expert Thomas Schuller from the University of Munster in western Germany says the events at the Christustrager monastery are not an isolated case.

"It shows that there is a high risk of spiritual and sexual abuse in both Catholic and Protestant spiritual communities with particular leadership profiles."

However, he says, the fact that the monks are now seeking publicity in such an active manner is to be "positively recognised".

The Christustrager brotherhood has been based at Triefenstein monastery since 1986. It is an order-like, ecumenical community within the Protestant church, but it is not part of the regional church.

Twelve brothers and other members currently live in the monastery. Their house is also open to external guests, for seminars or camps, for example. They record up to 8,000 overnight stays each year.A view of the Triefenstein monastery.A view of the Triefenstein monastery.

The co-founder and first prior of the community since its foundation in 1961 was dismissed in 1996 after his alleged abuses became known.

But the brotherhood was not ready to go public at that stage.

"Even then, we should have called in the police and an independent counselling centre. Neither happened. Today we know that was a mistake," the management says openly in the letter.

The suspect died in 2018, so the public prosecutor's office in nearby Wurzburg is not investigating him, a spokesman says.

In total, at least four brothers are said to have been perpetrators, according to the external commission.

"We received reports of sexual assaults both within the fraternity and against other people," says the report, which was presented to the community last summer.

"The majority, as far as we are aware, involved homosexual acts between men," it says.

One of the victims is said to have been a minor at the time.

There were also alleged sexual assaults on two girls in Switzerland in 1987 and 1991 who did not belong to the community.

The public prosecutor's office is investigating whether possible offences committed by the other three suspects are now time-barred.

"But I assume so," a spokesman for the authorities said recently.

The three suspects no longer belong to the community, but some of the alleged victims still do. According to the brotherhood, the public prosecutor's office had begun to take action in two cases, but then discontinued the proceedings.

In spring 2021, the group decided to investigate the issue, Hauter says.

A special group made up of two therapists, a lawyer and a theologian spoke to 15 people who were directly or indirectly affected, and also analysed documents.

The documents revealed that many of the assaults took place at the fraternity's former headquarters in Bensheim-Auerbach, in the state of Hesse, and in other places where there are branches.

The fraternity informed the public in October 2023.

"It took us a very long time to speak publicly," says Hauter. "To find words for the unspeakable and to categorise it spiritually."

An ombudsman's office to which victims and those indirectly affected can turn to was set up in 2010.

"The fraternity has also adopted a prevention policy and formulated a self-commitment that all brothers have signed," Hauter says.

This stipulates that all cases of boundary violations and sexualised violence within the context of the work of the Christustrager community are taken very seriously by the management.

That would mean calling in independent experts, and depending on the severity of the issue, involving the police and prosecutors. Potential compensation for victims would be clarified on an individual basis.

Schuller sees the process of coming to terms with the past as just the beginning. It remains to be seen whether the brotherhood will be prepared to fully and properly compensate the victims, "which means not just handing out charity", he says.

"This community still has a long way to go before it can once again be trusted as a Christian community." – dpa

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