MUNICH — The priest at the center of a German sexual-abuse scandal that has embroiled Pope Benedict XVI continued working with children for more than 30 years, even though a German court convicted him of molesting boys.
The priest, Peter Hullermann, who had previously been identified only by the first letter of his last name, was suspended from his duties only on Monday. That was three days after the church acknowledged that the pope, then Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger, had responded to early accusations of molestation by allowing the priest to move to Munich for therapy in 1980.
Hundreds of victims have come forward in recent months in Germany with accounts of sexual abuse from decades past. But no case has captured the attention of the nation like that of Father Hullermann, not only because of the involvement of the future pope, but also because of the impunity that allowed a child molester to continue to work with altar boys and girls for decades after his conviction.
Benedict not only served as the archbishop of the diocese where the priest worked, but also later as the cardinal in charge of reviewing sexual abuse cases for the Vatican. Yet until the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising announced that Father Hullermann had been suspended on Monday, he continued to serve in a series of Bavarian parishes.
In 1980, the future pope reviewed the case of Father Hullermann, who was accused of sexually abusing boys in the Diocese of Essen, including forcing an 11-year-old boy to perform oral sex. The future pope approved his transfer to Munich. On Friday, a deputy took responsibility for allowing the priest to return to full pastoral duties shortly afterward. Six years later, Father Hullermann was convicted of sexually abusing children in the Bavarian town of Grafing. Father Hullermann’s identity was revealed Sunday, when a man whose marriage he was scheduled to perform in the spa town of Bad Tölz stood up in the pews and began shouting as the head of the congregation was speaking in vague terms about the scandal.
But even after the revelations of last week, parishioners there, where Father Hullermann had been working, described him glowingly, calling him friendly, down to earth and popular with churchgoers, especially children and teenagers.
Father Hullermann’s story is one of a beloved priest with a damaging secret church officials helped him hide.
School records in the town of Grafing show that he taught religion six hours a week at a public high school starting Sept. 18, 1984 — less than five years after he was moved from Essen for abusing boys. The only mention of the case in the church records there said that lay elders were informed of “criminal proceedings,” though locals said there were rumors that it had something to do with children.
Rupert Frania, the priest in charge of the congregation in Bad Tölz, where Father Hullermann spent the last year and a half, said in an interview on Sunday that his superiors did not tell them about the priest’s history of sexual abuse.
“They should have told me before,” said Father Frania, who said he first heard about Father Hullermann’s conviction last week as the story was about to become public.
The statement by the archdiocese said that there was “no evidence of recent sexual abuses, similar to those for which he was convicted in 1986.”
In June 1986, the priest was convicted of sexually abusing minors and given an 18-month suspended sentence with five years of probation, fined 4,000 marks and ordered to undergo therapy.
Repeated attempts to contact Father Hullermann at his home in Bad Tölz were unsuccessful.
“He is not here at the moment,” Father Frania said.
Significant questions remain unanswered, especially about the pope’s involvement during his time as archbishop and how closely he supervised decisions about the priest. Nor have any of the victims in Grafing as yet come forward publicly.
Even before this latest case, the European sexual-abuse scandal had deeply damaged the church’s reputation in the pope’s home country, Germany. The congregations in Bad Tölz and in Garching an der Alz, where Father Hullermann worked for 21 years, responded with shock and anger, but also with a strong defense for a priest lauded for his approachability, good humor and ability to connect with parishioners on everyday issues.
In Bad Tölz on Sunday, after the groom’s outburst, there was consternation. Churchgoers, like Eva Wankerl, who said they had come to the service on Sunday because they were expecting Father Hullermann to give the sermon, left in tears. “He was somehow so close to the people, compared to some of the others who could seem superior,” said Ms. Wankerl, 61, a pensioner.
But she also said it was time that the church stopped hiding abuse cases and questioned why priests seemed to be held to a less strict standard of morality than ordinary parishioners. “If you get divorced and remarry you can’t take communion, but someone convicted of molesting children can celebrate Mass for the rest of his life,” she said.
Indeed his year and a half in Bad Tölz seemed more plum than punishment. He lived just off the historic pedestrian thoroughfare in one of Germany’s most beautiful spa towns.
His sudden departure in 2008 from Garching, where for years he worked as the parish administrator, was an emotional affair complete with a brass band and the firing of salutes, according to a local newspaper article posted to the church Web site.
But the story of his departure takes on strange overtones in light of the revelations, describing “Hulli,” as the children nicknamed him, as “a priest to touch,” who succeeded in creating “a young church and to pass on his love of liturgy in enduring fashion to the young generation.”
When he moved to Bad Tölz, it was under the condition that he was not supposed to have dealings with children. Though he was supposed to tend to tourists, he worked with few restrictions, including celebrating Mass with altar boys.
Michael Leitenstorfer, who said his children had worked in services with Father Hullermann, strongly defended the priest. “I’ve personally experienced how Father Hullermann treated our children absolutely appropriately, but also lovingly,” he said.
Father Frania added that he had heard no accusations against Father Hullermann during his time in the parish and said that people should practice forgiveness toward him. “If we can no longer believe in forgiving sins, we might as well close the whole store,” he said.
Victor Homola contributed reporting from Berlin.
Credits to Ng Boon Yong, T3