Child-Abusers of Another Stripe

The tales of mistreated youth at these institutions are continuing to multiply. There was sexual abuse coming from those who were supposed to care for them, to be sure. But far more pervasive was the intimidating atmosphere, often accompanied by violence: heads shoved down toilets; beatings; even confinement for extended periods in cells, like common criminals.

I’m not making any of this up, as I will shortly document, at least for those of you who read German. Yet long-time readers of this weblog – Hi Mom! – will remember my fondness for the “false lead,” where impressions about what a given blogpost is about gained from its opening lines turn out to be wildly off-the-mark. Surely I am describing here the Roman Catholic institutions, run by paedophile priests, whose reputations are now being blackened by accusations leveled against their administrators by former inhabitants? Actually, no; taking as my cue a new article by Alan Posener in Die Welt (Brutal daily life in DDR youth institutions), I am referring to the establishments for problem youths set up and run by the former Communist East Germany.

There, as in any socialist land, young people who got in trouble with the law were cared for only at reform-schools run by the State, namely in “youth work centers” (Jugendwerkhöfe) if they were 14 to 18 years old and in “special homes for children” (Spezialkinderheime) if they were younger. And there abuses occurred – perhaps even inevitable abuses, you could say, if you take a dim view of human nature that regards any setting in which people are given near total power over those weaker than and dependent upon them as certain to lead to some kind of trouble. Socialist doctrine made the situation even worse; as Posener reports, the upbringing in such institutions was patterned on the doctrines of the Soviet educational theorist Anton Makarenko, which (at least in the DDR version) prescribed as a first task the breaking of a young person’s individual will, in order then to reconstruct it along more collective lines – described by one former denizen as “Don’t cause trouble, just keep your mouth shut” (Nicht aufmucken, Schnauze halten).

By doctrine and by situation, then, what resulted was a chain of hundreds of institutions throughout the old DDR (usually located in villas, or even castles, that had been confiscated from their owners, by the way) sure to create many victims. Twenty years after the Wall’s fall, those victims are now starting to make their voices heard, contacting the media as well as their representatives in the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany’s parliament.

And nothing of this has anything at all to do with the abuse, sexual and otherwise, of children entrusted to Catholic institutions in other lands and in the other part of Germany – by definition it does not, since the DDR was a quite strict atheist state. Yet isn’t it funny that such a report would surface at the very same time that officials of the Roman Catholic hierarchy – and, increasingly, German officials in particular – are finding themselves under increasing pressure from victims of the same sort of abuses at their hands or the hands of those they were supposed to supervise? For among the lame rationalizations put forward recently by Church spokesmen trying to deflect such criticism – officials representing a venerable, centuries-old institution founded on the Bible that has always claimed to embody much higher moral standards – has been that “Anyway, this sort of thing happens everywhere.”

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