Victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Switzerland may now seek financial compensation and other forms of reparation in cases that have exceeded the statute of limitations. This follows the launch of an independent sexual abuse commission. However, payments are likely to remain symbolic.
The fight against sexual abuse within the Catholic Church took a step forwards on Tuesday with the official launch of CECAR, a sexual abuse commission that is “neutral and independent of the authorities of the Catholic Church”.
CECAR is the result of almost six years’ negotiations and agreement between victims’ groups, parliamentarians and the Swiss Bishops Conference. The initiative is aimed at victims who were minors at the time of the incidents, but whose cases have encountered legal time limits.
“Exceeding the statute of limitations does not wipe out suffering,” said Charles Morerod, the Bishop for Lausanne, Geneva and Fribourg at a news conference in Lausanne. He was one of the co-signatories of an accord in 2015 between the Catholic Church and the victims’ group SAPEC that led to the creation of CECAR.
From September an abuse victim will be able to file an online claim for reparations to CECAR, which will be examined by a group of three experts from the justice, health and social sectors. A final decision on each individual reconciliation process and eventual compensation will be decided by a CECAR committee.
Jacques Nuoffer, one of the driving forces behind the initiative and himself a victim, welcomed the launch.
“In this model the Church descends from its pedestal to come closer to the victim,” he declared.
The Swiss Bishop’s Conference, which has been closely involved in setting up and approving the commission, has created a victims fund of CHF500,000 ($520,394). Compensation payments of up to CHF20,000 may be made in the most serious cases.
It is unclear exactly how many victims may come forward to seek reparation. CECAR says there could be around 200 victims of abuse in Switzerland who may be interested. But the figure could be much higher. The Swiss commission has been inspired by the work of a successful Church reconciliation scheme in Belgium, which recorded 800 cases.
Officials say the CHF500,000 in the compensation fund is just a start and more may come later.
“But we shouldn’t focus too much on the financial aspect,” said CECAR President Sylvie Perrinjaquet, a former member of the Neuchâtel cantonal government.
With the creation of CECAR, officials are now encouraging victims to come forward.
“This is an exceptional and unique opportunity to relieve ourselves of the heavy weight of secrecy,” declared SAPEC member Jean-Marie Fürbringer, who was himself a victim.
Individuals must fill out an online form to check if the acts are prescribed and were committed by Catholic priests or nuns in Switzerland. They must give the identity of their abuser but no proof is necessary. If they wish, they can ask to meet their abuser face to face but there is no obligation, and the abuser may refuse, in which case someone from the Church may take their place.
“We hope to find the solution that suits each victim,” said Perrinjaquet. “Some just want to be heard but others want the church to feel the full weight of what happened to them.”
Morerod acknowledged the difficulties ahead.
“If the abuser is still alive, they will have to accept this process. It’s certainly difficult for all people involved. There is probably a desire to deny the facts – not always. After it’s a religious superior or a bishop who will have to go and meet the victim. I myself have already met numerous victims,” he said.
The bishop felt there were limits to the new scheme, however. Charges against priests who are innocent until proven guilty can cause “headaches” and clashes between church and Swiss law and employment regulations.
“But if we always take into account all these different risks we will end up doing nothing,” he declared.
CECAR is an initiative that originates from French-speaking Switzerland. Apart from Morerod, it has the support of other Catholic leaders in French-speaking Switzerland, such as the bishop of Sion, the Abbot of Saint Maurice, and groups representing nuns and convents from the region. But it is not excluded that it may extend to other parts of the country.
“In Swiss German regions they feel they can solve this issue internally,” said Perrinjaquet.
Nuoffer said German-speaking dioceses had generally much better managed the scandal of sexual abuse within the Church.
“But perhaps what is happening in French-speaking Switzerland will wake people up a bit,” he declared. “Some victims from Swiss-German regions may also come forward.”
According to a news report in May 2015, around 20 criminal cases have been opened against priests and Catholic monks for sexual abuse in Switzerland since 2010, despite the church catching 172 alleged offenders.
Many of the recorded cases date back to the 1950s and some suspects have therefore died. However, that is not the only reason for the discrepancy – other suspects simply could not be tracked down. The low prosecution rate is also down to the fact that the dioceses provided “very sketchy” information, according to the report, especially for the period between 1950 and 1980.
According to the most recent figures from the Swiss Bishops’ Conference in 2014, 193 victims came forward between 2009-2012 to report abuse in Swiss dioceses since 1960. The abuse was carried out by 172 priests and lay clergy.
Most cases concern the St Gallen, Chur and Basel dioceses. Very few are new, with the bulk announced in 2010 when media attention was at its peak. For the vast majority the statute of limitations has run out, priests have died and only a handful ended in convictions, defrocking or compensation.