Head of German Protestants may have to resign for covering up abuse

Dangerous proximity

The EKD chairwoman Annette Kurschus is said to have covered up sexual abuse by a church employee. She denies the allegations. The case is nebulous.  (Cathcon: not quite what the article says in the following)

The organizers of the EKD Synod meeting actually thought that a signal from the Protestant Church should emanate from Ulm. The aim was to demonstrate “the ability to speak and act in faith”. It should also become clear in Ulm that when it comes to the issue of sexual violence by church employees, people will no longer rely solely on the fact that the general public considers the problem to be exclusively Catholic. Those affected by abuse have formed a participation forum in the EKD; in Ulm they should be on stage and in the center of attention, and even be allowed to make demands.

But a few days after the Ulm Synod ended, the Protestant Church appears paralyzed and speechless. The focus of interest is not on those affected, but on EKD Council Chairwoman Annette Kurschus. The 60-year-old pastor from Westphalia has been at the head of German Protestants since the end of 2021. Now the EKD Council believes that Kurschus' resignation is possible. The accusation: Covering up a case of abuse or at least sexual harassment.

But Kurschus herself has not yet admitted any mistakes. In Ulm on Tuesday evening before the synod, she denied having known about the case years ago. Just before the boss's short-notice appearance, the members of the participation forum had presented themselves on the same stage. The sequence in Ulm represents the delicate question that the church is now facing: Will committed enlighteners shape the picture in the next few weeks - or will the accused and those responsible whose actions are questioned?

But first things first: Last week, the Siegener Zeitung reported on allegations in the Siegen-Wittgenstein church district, where Kurschus worked as a pastor and later as superintendent and which is still her area of responsibility as head of the Westphalian Regional Church. According to the newspaper report, at least eight of those affected, all of them men, accuse a church district employee, who has since retired, of having pressured them into sexual acts. The employee is said to have taken advantage of a special close relationship. Neither the man's name nor his field of activity are mentioned in the reporting in order to protect his personal rights and because the presumption of innocence applies. When asked by ZEIT ONLINE, his lawyer said that his client did not want to comment at the moment due to the ongoing investigation.

According to the regional church, Kurschus has been aware of the allegations against the church employee since the beginning of the year. “Immediately after the suspicions became known, the Siegen-Wittgenstein Evangelical Church District called in the state investigative authorities,” said a spokesman for the regional church when asked. The leadership of the Westphalian Regional Church and the EKD church office were also informed at the beginning of this year. An intervention team has also been set up on site. “In any case, the suspected case will be investigated and processed externally after the official investigation has been completed.”

Ominous meeting in the garden

However, witnesses claim to the Siegener Zeitung that Kurschus was aware of allegations against the employee years before. Specifically, it's about a meeting at the end of the 1990s in the garden of the then pastor Kurschus in Siegen. Four men, one himself affected, and another pastor are said to have been present. Two of the participants in the conversation have now submitted affidavits. Accordingly, the conversation in the garden involved the accused's "sexual misconduct." What that means exactly is not discussed. Was it about abuse or secret homosexuality? The latter may have already been seen as a moral lapse in the conservative-pietist Siegerland of the 1990s, especially when it comes to a married church worker who feels attracted to men who are significantly younger than him.

When it comes to abuse, accuracy is particularly important. What type of abuse is it? Is it about harassment, groping or penetration? Are minors or adults affected, and when it comes to adults: Was there a dependency relationship, was violence or psychological pressure involved? Answering these questions is crucial in order to evaluate a situation. In the case of the Siegen church employee, however, much is unclear. This also applies to the garden appointment. When exactly did the meeting take place? Why don't the witnesses publicly vouch for their statements by name, when at least one of them isn't even a victim? And what does the second pastor who is supposedly present actually say about the whole thing? According to the regional church, their identity has not yet been determined.

Kurschus dismissed the report as “hints and speculation.” “In conversations many years ago, the sexual orientation of the accused was discussed, but at no time was the crime of sexual violence discussed,” she explained in writing. Before the synod, however, she also said: "I am examining myself, I am examining myself intensively - have I missed something? Have I overlooked something? Is there a misunderstanding? I can only say: these implied accusations absolutely alienate me."

Regarding the allegations of abuse, the public prosecutor informed the press on Monday. The man took advantage of his position to "somehow seduce" adult young men into carrying out homosexual acts with him. At the same time, however, she asserted: "At least we have not come to any knowledge that any people were brought into submission with physical violence, threats or threats of beatings or anything else." According to the investigations so far, it is assumed that the people suspected of being affected were of age at the time of the incidents. In addition, events that occurred more than 20 years ago can be assumed to be statute-barred. Nevertheless, it will continue to be examined. This means: There is nothing criminally relevant at the moment.

The case is complicated

On Thursday, however, another article appeared in the Siegener Zeitung with the headline: "Allegations of abuse contain references to a 13-year-old victim." A representative of the public prosecutor's office was quoted as saying: In the case of a man, "we may be talking about a person who was underage at the time of the alleged acts." However, the man has not yet been questioned, it was said. Why not?

When asked by ZEIT ONLINE, the responsible public prosecutor explains: "On the afternoon of November 16th, a journalist from the Siegener Zeitung told me by telephone that the person who, according to the Siegener Zeitung's report, was a minor at the time of the crime, was ready to give a statement in the investigation "The name of this person is already on file." The journalist was told that it could only be one person who would be questioned by the police in the next few days. However, it is unclear what and whether the man wants to testify. "Regardless of this, the Siegener Zeitung used this conversation as an opportunity to give the impression that the Siegen public prosecutor's office had reliable information about an underage victim."

In short: the case is complicated and anything but closed.

And Kurschus? During the synod in Ulm, she denied several times that she had been aware of "allegations of sexual violence" against the church employee before the beginning of the year. She also initially left it unclear how close the “accused person” really is to her. At first she was only familiar with the name ("In Siegen, everyone knows everyone"), then she admitted: "It is common knowledge that I know the person who has been accused since the beginning of this year well." And finally she admitted on stage in the Ulm: "I actually know her very well. At least that's what I thought." It must have seemed to many synod participants as if Kurschus had something to hide.

Hoping for the regicide

There were no questions from the plenary session about the ominous garden meeting. In the end, the council chairman was applauded, although not by everyone. The latter is important in the Protestant church: If everyone doesn't clap, the boss has a problem. The case of the Siegen church employee had finally become a Kurschu case. This is also why the members of the EKD Council viewed themselves critically: Who dares to keep their hands in their laps when the chairwoman stops speaking? Synod President Anna-Nicole Heinrich started things off at a press conference. She didn't applaud, she admitted, and was even "irritated" by the applause.

Irritation - that's pretty much the worst thing a Protestant church official can admit when she is asked about another official in public. After all, you are proud of the spiritual family you exemplify. At most, you criticize yourself quietly and in hints. Nevertheless, or rather: that's why internally it's sometimes like rugby, there's chopping and kicking. Such activities are intensified by the fact that the Protestant Church is currently under particular scrutiny when it comes to the issue of sexual abuse within its own ranks.

In January, the results of a large-scale study on cases of abuse in all 20 regional churches and the social services are finally to be presented - a similar study on the Catholic Church has already been carried out since 2018. In addition, the signing of a joint declaration with Kerstin Claus is planned for December, the federal government's abuse commissioner. This is about key points for an independent investigation of the cases of abuse in the Protestant Church, a big state-church matter. On both occasions Kurschus is said to represent Protestantism. From the church's perspective, it's not a good thing when there is an accusation of a cover-up against the council chairwoman.

Publicly calling on Kurschus to resign, but if she doesn't want to resign, they obviously don't want to - because of the fraternity. In Ulm, a scandal was averted: the synod was canceled early, allegedly because of the rail strike.

Since then, everyone in the council and synod has probably asked themselves: What now? In any case, Kurschus is staying – at least for now. Politicians who are familiar with the EKD say: The resignation is actually inevitable. She became incapable of action and unbelievable. Everyone seems to be hoping for a regicide. But that is not yet in sight. So you increase the pressure in other ways. A statement from the EKD Participation Forum, the association of those affected, became known yesterday. It says that the investigation and punishment of specific crimes belongs in the hands of law enforcement authorities. It is now the responsibility of the “EKD Council Chairmen to seriously personally examine any further steps.” If those affected withdraw their trust in Kurschus, the council chairwoman will no longer be sustainable. Then her deputy, Hamburg Bishop Kirsten Fehrs, would have to take over on an acting basis.

And someone else could influence Anette Kurschus' fate: Kerstin Claus, the independent representative of the federal government. After all, she and Kurschus are supposed to be responsible for the joint declaration on December 13th. “We are sticking to this plan,” she tells ZEIT ONLINE. "The current allegations against Council Chairwoman Annette Kurschus clearly show how necessary it is to establish structures for an independent processing of sexual violence in the Protestant sector. Regional independent contact points are particularly important for those affected."

Apparently no one within the EKD leadership committee wants to make it easier for Annette Kurschus to decide whether her remaining in office will cause more damage to her church than resigning. When viewed closely, the matter is not as clear-cut as its critics make it out to be. Because just imagine: the council chairwoman is now resigning and a few months later, the independent investigation of the Siegen case may show that the allegations against the then council chairwoman were unfounded or insufficient. What harm would that do?