How a Molesting Case Emerged Decades Later

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New York Times

01 April 2010

Michael Kamber for The New York Times


ESSEN, Germany — The case that has raised questions about the future pope’s handling of a pedophile priest in Germany came to light three decades after it occurred, and then almost by chance. It happened when Wilfried Fesselmann, an early victim, said he stumbled on Internet photographs of the priest who sexually abused him, still working with children.

Mr. Fesselmann, who had long remained silent about the abuse he suffered in 1979, said the pictures stunned him and spurred him to contact his abuser. Thus began the convoluted process, which included an extortion investigation against Mr. Fesselmann for the emotionally raw e-mail messages he sent the church in 2008 demanding compensation, that ultimately put Pope Benedict XVI in an uncomfortable spotlight.

After the police investigated him for blackmail, Mr. Fesselmann did not discuss his charges publicly until last month. By that time, molesting of children by other priests had exploded into public view in Germany, with scores of investigations into old and new cases capturing headlines nationwide.

The fact that it took so long before the Roman Catholic Church took action against the abusive priest, and that the victim initially had to defend himself, is an indication that the German church — as well as Germany’s police, courts and society at large — are still in the early stages of reckoning on a psychologically fraught issue that many Germans once dismissed as an American problem.

Mr. Fesselmann also had no way of knowing that his case would create repercussions for the church that went well beyond his own grievance. His and other cases of abuse caused the church to transfer the abusive priest, the Rev. Peter Hullermann, to Munich in 1980, a decision that required the approval of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then the archbishop of Munich and Freising, now the pope. Father Hullermann was given therapy in Munich, but he was allowed to resume his pastoral duties almost immediately.

Father Hullermann went on to molest other boys and was not formally suspended until last month, after the German church acknowledged that “bad mistakes” were made in the handling of his case. The church said the decision to allow the priest to resume his duties in 1980 was made solely by Cardinal Ratzinger’s top aide at the time, but church officials also said the future pope was sent a memo about the reassignment.

While the church has acknowledged Father Hullermann’s extensive history of sexual abuse, there have been no court proceedings on Mr. Fesselmann’s claims.

Three decades after Mr. Fesselmann said Father Hullermann forced him, then 11, to perform oral sex on him, he saw pictures of the priest — older and now heavy-set, but still recognizable — working with children in Bavaria, at the opposite end of the country.

Mr. Fesselmann sent intermittent e-mail messages to Father Hullermann over the next year and a half. The messages were unsigned but sent from his personal account. In his messages he threatened to go public and asked about victims’ compensation. The e-mail was answered not by Father Hullermann but by diocesan authorities in Munich, who asked Mr. Fesselmann to give them his full name so they could look into his charges.

He did not, but on the morning of April 24, 2008, while he was still corresponding with the archdiocese, six men appeared unannounced at his home in Essen: two police officers from Bavaria, two police officers from Essen, a city official and a representative of the church.

“They said that they were there at 10 o’clock out of consideration, because my children were in school by then,” said Mr. Fesselmann, now 41, an unemployed father of three.

Prosecutors in Traunstein, the town in deeply Catholic Bavaria where Pope Benedict grew up, were investigating Mr. Fesselmann on charges of blackmail.

Church officials say that in this case they did exactly what they have been criticized so often for not doing: They referred the case to prosecutors rather than handling it internally. From there, it was prosecutors who chose to open the blackmail investigation.

“It is our duty to determine if there are criminal offenses, without pursuing them from any particular direction,” said Günther Hammerdinger, a spokesman for the Traunstein prosecutors office. “Since the possible sexual offenses were clearly past the statute of limitations, no investigative proceedings against the priest were started.”

Pressure on Mr. Fesselmann began long before he ever considered going public. He said that he was assaulted by other members of his church youth group, who blamed him for the suspension of Father Hullermann, a popular young chaplain, in 1979 and his later departure for Munich. Mr. Fesselmann’s devoutly religious parents were not among the three sets of parents who brought accusations to the priest in charge of St. Andreas Church at the time, charges Father Hullermann did not deny, according to the Essen Diocese.

“You weren’t supposed to say anything against the church,” Mr. Fesselmann said of his upbringing. On her deathbed in 2000, his mother asked him “to forget the whole thing and not to do anything about it,” Mr. Fesselmann said. He had told a friend about the abuse, whose parents then complained to the church.

Relatively few victims have come forward publicly in Germany to tell their stories of sexual abuse at the hands of priests, as Mr. Fesselmann did in the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung last month. Culturally, Germany is more reserved, and its people less demonstrative and emotionally open than in the United States.

The atmosphere for victims of sexual abuse in Europe today is similar to what it was nearly a decade ago in the United States, where victims viewed themselves as isolated cases and did not see the point in coming forward, said Barbara Blaine, president of the advocacy group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

“There doesn’t seem to be an environment where victims feel safe or free to speak up,” Ms. Blaine said.

Nor can victims in Germany expect the kind of million-dollar payouts that some American victims have received. Manuela Groll, a lawyer in Berlin representing 15 students who say they were abused at Jesuit high schools in Germany, said that the highest civil judgment for a case of severe sexual abuse of a minor that she could find was less than $70,000 and a small monthly stipend.

Mr. Fesselmann, who as an adult had panic attacks that he said his therapist told him were a result of childhood trauma, said he wanted Father Hullermann to confess what he had done and stop working with children.

A large man with a gentle manner, Mr. Fesselmann was no stranger to public attention. He has written two books on living well off the German welfare system, and appeared on television many times here.

Mr. Fesselmann originally requested to have his full name kept out of media reports, and was cited only as Wilfried F. by The New York Times in a previous article. But his full name was published last month — against his wishes, he said — in Germany’s largest-circulation newspaper, the tabloid Bild.

After his initial e-mail messages in 2006, a year and a half went by before he again e-mailed Father Hullermann and again received a response from a representative of the archdiocese handling child-abuse cases, Msgr. Siegfried Kneissl.

In printed copies of e-mail messages from April 2008 provided by Mr. Fesselmann, Monsignor Kneissl encouraged him to come forward and allow church officials to check out his story.

In his response, sent on April 18, Mr. Fesselmann sounded angry and impatient, scolding Monsignor Kneissl for misspelling the name of the pedophile priest and writing that he had until April 30 to respond with “your offer with a financial allotment.” According to the prosecutor’s office in Traunstein, the investigation against Mr. Fesselmann had already begun, on April 15, 2008.

Criminal police officers from the nearby Bavarian town of Mühldorf visited Mr. Fesselmann on April 24, the prosecutors office in Traunstein confirmed. Prosecutors also questioned Father Hullermann, but he was not investigated by the office at that time or since.

But the priest was re-evaluated by church officials. He was relieved of his duties in the town of Garching an der Alz on May 6, 2008, and later sent to work in the spa town of Bad Tölz, on the condition that he no longer work with children. Father Hullermann was suspended last month, three days after his case became public, after the news media reported that he was still working with children in his new position. Last week, new accusations of sexual abuse emerged, both from his first assignment near Essen in the 1970s and from 1998 in Garching.

Three weeks after the police visited his home, Mr. Fesselmann received a letter in the mail from prosecutors, saying that the investigation had been dropped as of May 14, 2008. “The defense of the accused cannot be disproved, that he had no intention to ask for money or to be compensated, but that instead he intended to get proof of the incidents between him and the witness Hullermann,” the letter said.

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