The Schoenstatt Movement has rejected a researcher’s claims that its founder engaged in sexual abuse, saying that any past allegations against him would have already been considered in the Vatican’s review of his proposed beatification.
“We firmly reject the accusation that Joseph Kentenich was guilty of sexual abuse of members of the Institute of the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary,” Juan Pablo Catoggio, International President of the Schoenstatt Work, said in a July 2 statement.
“His behaviour toward other persons – especially women – was always marked by a pronounced reverence and esteem, as well as by the principle of physical integrity, which he also impressed upon his communities.”
“That there were accusations from the ranks of the Sisters of Mary is not new to us. Fr Kentenich himself gave a detailed account of his actions to his superior after an accusation became known. In this context, however, there was no mention of sexual abuse, neither literally nor in content,” Catoggio said, citing the return of Kentenich to a leadership role in Schoenstatt as evidence the Vatican rejected the charges against him.
Catoggio repeated his previous statement that before beatification can begin, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith must issue a “nihil obstat” based on its files. Any “well-founded suspicion of moral misconduct” would have prevented this, but the CDF granted the “nihil obstat.”
He objected that theologian and Church historian Alexandra von Teuffenbach’s account is “viewed entirely from the perspective of the visitors” who investigated the community.
von Teuffenbach, former professor of theology and Church history at the Pontifical Lateran University and the Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum, reviewed Vatican-commissioned assessments of the Schoenstatt movement, which reportedly portray Kentenich as manipulative and coercive.
Her research was the subject of a story in the German Catholic newspaper Die Tagepost, and she discussed her work in a letter to Vatican expert Sandro Magister, who published the letter on July 2 at his website Settimo Cielo.
Von Teuffenbach told Magister that what caught her attention in her research was “the serious abuse of power by the founder at the expense of the nuns, clearly verified and highlighted by the Roman visitor, just as the local one had done before him.”
Von Teuffenbach is the editor of the Second Vatican Council diaries of the Jesuit theologian Sebastiaan Tromp, who was Rome’s apostolic visitor to the Schoenstatt community from 1951 to 1953.
Kentenich was born in 1885 and ordained a priest in 1910. In 1914, he founded the new ecclesial movement in a chapel in Schoenstatt, Germany. Kentenich went to the U.S. in 1951, and was permitted to return to Germany in October 1965. He died three years later. A beatification process for the priest began in 1975.
The movement, which now includes priests, consecrated women, and lay people, is active in 42 countries, and focused on spiritual formation and Marian spirituality.
Schoenstatt, in the German Diocese of Trier, is still the headquarters of the movement.
Tromp’s visitation followed up on a 1949 visit ordered by the Bishop of Trier and conducted by his auxiliary, Bishop Bernhard Stein.
Stein generally approved the work’s “clear vision” and “high level of spiritual care,” but cited some flaws: “there seem to be only a few confident personalities with true independent thinking and inner freedom, among the male leaders and among the Marian nuns.”
The auxiliary bishop said he found “internal dissatisfaction,” as well as “insecurity and lack of autonomy” among these nuns, von Teuffenbach said. Based on this report, the Bishop of Trier wrote to Kentenich, who von Teuffenbach said “contested, distorted, and manipulated the bishop’s provisions, which this latter did not by any means appreciate.”
“What Tromp gathers from the testimonies, from the letters, from the many conversations he had, including with the founder himself, is indicative of a situation of complete subjugation of the nuns, concealed in a certain way by a sort of family structure applied to the work,” von Teuffenbach continued. She said the movement’s leading “mother” had “no power whatsoever,” and even less power was among the religious women.
As von Teuffenbach reads the documents, Kentenich appears as a “father-master,” the “founder with absolute power, often equated with God, so much so that in many expressions and prayers it is not clear whether these are addressed to God the Father or to the founder himself.”
One aspect of the abuse of power, according to the researcher, was the obligation imposed upon the nuns to confess to the community founder, at least in some circumstances. According to von Teuffenbach, the nuns were required on a monthly basis to kneel before Kentenich and “give themselves totally to him.” The dialogue that took place was often “alone and behind closed doors.”
The dialogue depicted the nun as “the father’s,” as “nothing,” and the “father” as “everything.” Body parts like the eyes, ears, and mouth are described as belonging to the “father.” Some nuns said this discussion extended to the breast and the sexual organs as well.
Catoggio, the Schoenstatt movement’s president, said claims that the sisters were forced to confess to the founder can be refuted by other testimonies. Kentenich was “almost continuously on journeys abroad” at this time, raising the question of “how the compulsion to confess should take effect during such a prolonged absence.”
“Such vague statements, coupled with the researched allegation of sexual abuse, do not testify to a critical examination of the files,” he continued. “Blanket assertions with evaluative adjectives merely play on the keyboard of the current abuse debate without knowing and communicating ’the whole story’.”
Kentenich responded “in detail” to the visitor and his superiors regarding alleged abuse of power to explain his thinking, his principles and his behavior, said Catoggio.
“It is astonishing that the author – based on the reports of Fr. Tromp – makes his view of the community and its members completely her own,” said Catoggio.
He criticized von Teuffenbach’s portrayal of the nuns as ranging “from extreme dependence, incapacity to judge and decide to childish dependence and slavish subservience to an all-dominating founder.”
von Teuffenbach said the climate described by the visitor was “highly sexualized.”
“Ballets of nuns around the founding father, nighttime meetings, ambiguous expressions are certainly not what is expected in a religious house,” she said.
In her view, supporters of Schoenstatt, like Pallotine superior general Woicjech Turowski, initially denied these facts and believed they could be justified. She said “they claimed that the founder was only helping the nuns to free themselves from sexual tensions with a ’psychotherapeutic pastoral remedy’.
The researcher cited a Chile-based German nun’s 1948 letter, transcribed by Tromp.
“The subject of the letter is an incident of sexual abuse,” said von Teuffenbach. “The nun reports that after what had happened to her during one of these rites she was no longer able to see the founder as the ‘father,’ but only as a ‘male,’ recounting that she had rebelled and had suffered for a year before being able to talk about it with her confessor.”
The nun wrote a letter to the mother general in Germany, who sent a copy to Kentenich and accused the nun of being possessed by the devil.
“Later when the apostolic visitor asked the mother general, who by that time had been dismissed, if she had received other letters of that kind, the mother general said there had been from six to eight letters, less serious according to her, which she had thrown away,” sad von Teuffenbach.
“In the decree of the Holy Office nothing is written about the abuse, but the disputed facts are communicated in writing to the mothers superior, so that they may accept more easily the dismissal of the founder.”
Catoggio, however, disputed her characterization of these actions as an effort not to expose the sisters.
“This interpretation seems to be laborious. It is probably meant to nevertheless somehow justify the thesis of sexual abuse,” he said. The CDF was “not exactly reserved when accusations of abuse were made.”
“On the contrary, it was repeatedly stated: The separation of Fr. Kentenich from his work is not a punitive measure, but an administrative order, i.e. a prudent measure taken through administrative channels.”
The charge of sexual abuse was not brought in the Roman Curia proceedings to separate Kentenich from Schoenstatt, Catoggio insisted.
When sent from Germany, Kentenich stayed at a Pallottine house in Milwaukee, Wis. In this time, von Teuffenbach said, the records show that he “in no way complied with the Vatican provisions” which barred any further contact with the nuns.
The researcher described the nuns who defended Kentenich as those who “preferred the founder’s charm to the directives of the Church.”
“Those nuns never stopped writing, denigrating and slandering not only the visitors but also the sisters who had cooperated with them and the priests who had testified against Fr. Kentenich,” she said, comparing these defenders to “the many women who are unable to get away from the husband who mistreats them and often excuse and defend him.”
“This is the dark part of the story, but there is also an edifying part. And it is the Roman curia that operated under Pius XII and that – certainly in this case – succeeded in giving its best.”
“The proceedings tell of an assiduous and meticulous search for the truth,” she said, adding that the Church acted “in the most correct way possible for those women, without however demeaning them by publicizing the facts.”
von Teuffenbach said she wrote Magister “to bring an end to the veneration of this ’father’ and demolish the many proposed reconstructions of alternative truths, as if this were merely a matter of psychological weaknesses in the face of a man at once so charismatic, skillful, and terrible.”
Magister described the Schoenstatt movement as “still one of the most renowned and widespread on a worldwide scale.”
A former Schoenstatt superior general, Francisco Javier Errázuriz Ossa, was Archbishop of Chile from 1998 to 2010 and elevated to the cardinalate in 2001. Pope Francis made him an adviser in 2013, as part of the Council of Cardinals. He left that role in 2018.
Bishop Francisco Pistilli of Encarnacion, Colombia, a Schoenstatt Father, commented July 2 that the accusation would require “a lot of objectivity.”
“In some way, our founder is put to the test. We trust he will pass the test, but he has to be seen to do so, with impartiality,” he said. “I am convinced that this is not a matter of becoming defensive, but about taking courage in the light. It can be painful, it will surely be. Questions will come up, perhaps even from ourselves. It’s time to understand and seek answers without fear and without the need to paint a picture of a perfect founder.”
“If the Church confirms his holiness, it won’t be ‘for being the one who always had the answers and never took risks beyond the conventional’,” said the bishop.
Pistilli said that the Church doesn’t thoroughly understand the abuse of power, and it was a question in the process to canonize Padre Pio.
“He passed the test,” said the bishop.
“Downplaying things is not is not always the best option. Much less in times like these,” said Pistilli. “Nor is it good to speak without knowledge. How much do we really know? Can we go deeper into what all this means? Without seeing just what we want to see, but with objectivity. I like to think we can.”
“God is light and those who follow him have to be seen in his light,” said the bishop.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.