Telephone hot lines in Europe offering help to people claiming abuse by Roman Catholic priests are being deluged with calls as the crisis spreads — with one center reporting complaints jumping from about 10 cases a year to more than a thousand in the past few weeks.
Experts say the record influx of calls reflects an increasing realization among victims that they are not alone and that they will not be scorned for breaking their silence about horrors that in many cases go back decades.
"Until now, many people were afraid they wouldn't be respected," said Max Friedrich, a prominent Austrian psychiatrist. "There's also a certain comfort knowing you're not the only one to have experienced such abuse."
In the Netherlands, the Help and Law line was set up in 1995 and generally dealt with roughly 10 reports of abuse per year. Since March it has received some 1,300 new reports, said Pieter Kohnen, spokesman for the Dutch Bishops' Conference, which runs the line.
As with similar help lines, not every complaint turns into an actual case — meaning the caller is assigned a legal adviser to guide him or her through the process.
Still, Help and Law is now dealing with nearly 50 cases, compared with 10 to 14 for most years, and the number is likely to rise further as the center plows through a backlog of complaints, according to spokesman Ben Spekman.
"We have started more cases in the last month than in the previous three years combined," Spekman said. "It is a significant increase."
Spekman said the hot line is also attracting people who feel compelled to give their reaction to reports of abuse. Some other callers report abuse that happened to a deceased loved one. In neither case would such calls lead to a formal complaint procedure.
Germany's bishops conference, which launched its hot line on March 30, reported this week that 2,700 people have called it in its first three days, while an older number in Germany run by a pro-reform group, We Are Church, said calls have jumped dramatically.
"In the past eight years we received about 300 calls total; in the past four to five weeks alone, we have gotten 100 calls," said Annegret Laakmann, a spokeswoman for We are Church.
In general, the hot lines offer an initial open ear to victims. Laakmann said that in Germany every complaint is believed without question. In some cases, the hot lines offer a chance to speak to a psychologist, or help finding one. In cases where legal avenues can be pursued, they counsel victims in how to approach authorities.
In Austria, if the perpetrators are still alive, they are tracked down and confronted with the allegations, according to an Austrian Web site that provides an overview of the country's church abuse complaint centers. In concrete cases, a perpetrator's supervisor in the church is informed and the person is suspended until the matter is cleared up, it said.
Austria has nine church-run offices that allow victims to report abuse — one for each diocese. The first was set up in Vienna in 1996 as a result of the sex scandal surrounding then Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer. In the first three months of this year, the offices recorded 566 calls or e-mails.
According to the Vienna hot line, 174 contacts were made between January and the end of March — compared to 17 in all of 2009. Of those, eight turned out to be concrete cases after experts held intensive conversations with alleged victims, said Erich Leitenberger, spokesman of the Vienna Archdiocese.
Hans Tauscher, who runs the complaint center for the Innsbruck diocese, said he has recently been working eight hours a day taking calls, answering e-mails and meeting with victims. He says it's tough to generalize on how much time he spends with each person, saying some take up to 45 minutes to describe what they went through. Others just take minutes.
"I go with whatever they want — the conversations are very unstructured," Tauscher said.
Christiane Sauer, a psychotherapist who heads the hot line in the Linz diocese, said people often tell her how relieved they feel after opening up to her, sometimes after decades of silence.
"They become calmer by talking about what happened," said Sauer, who encourages victims to also notify police or prosecutors — even if the abuse took place many years ago.
Some claim it is ludicrous to expect victims to contact church-sponsored hot lines since they are sometimes run by clergy and represent an institution that covered up or ignored cases in the past.
Critics include a newly created Austrian victims' group that calls itself the Platform Of Those Affected By Church Violence. It set up its own hot line on March 23 and has logged some 203 contacts since then.
Hans Peter Hurka of the Austrian branch of We are Church said most of the church-run centers were "fig leafs" until now, hiding the problem rather than exposing it.
In a sign the church may be taking this criticism to heart, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn recently appointed a former regional governor, Waltraud Klasnic, to ensure that all abuse allegations are investigated. She has also set up her own abuse hot line.
In the Netherlands, Spekman disputed the argument that the system cannot be trusted because it is not independent.
"In our view its independence is guaranteed," Spekman said. "If somebody does not agree they can always go to civil courts."
Eddy reported from Berlin and Associated Press Writer Mike Corder contributed from The Hague, Netherlands.