Let's not stage a witch hunt now

This personal report by the author and professor for literature in Germany, Josef Haslinger, appeared as an article in the print edition of the newspaper Die Welt in the Culture section. It also appeared in the online version of the print edition.

Note from JUMIMA:

Today Josef Haslinger sees his experiences in the Zwettl Monastery (2020) much more negatively than in the article below. He has presented his current assessment in the book ‘Mein Fall’, S.Fischer Verlag, 2020.

Translated by JUMIMA
Original German text

Remarks from the newspaper editor:

This text is a transgression. It has also sparked discussions in the editorial board. Because it provokes and could hurt feelings. We’re printing it as a document. The writer Josef Haslinger tells of his youth with pedophile priests and explains why the criminal code alone does not help.

Josef Haslinger, born in 1955 in Zwettl / Lower Austria, is one of the most well-known writers in Austria. His novel “Opera Ball” became a bestseller in 1995. His book “Phi Phi Island” was last published in 2007, his self-report on the tsunami from December 26, 2004. Josef Haslinger teaches literary aesthetics at the Leipzig Literature Institute.

Whenever it becomes known in Austria that Catholic priests were once again unable to keep their sex drive under control, my phone rings. It has become a tradition. You pretend to be an expert on pedophilia and pedosexuality. I had experience in this field as a child and I wrote about it. But I can’t be an expert because I used to write about it differently than I do now.

I was twelve when a priest, my religious studies teacher then, became interested in my small penis and obviously got excited. A condition that you don’t really know as a twelve-year-old, unless you were unlucky enough to have been bothered by your parents' sexuality. It took a while for my teacher to approach me intimately. When he realized that I would allow it, he looked for opportunities to repeat the game and, if possible, expand it a little. I went through several stages of expanding these games. It never occurred to me to do anything serious against it. And that’s why I wasn’t able to turn them off.

These contacts disturbed me, as they say, I didn’t know what to make of them, and I haven’t talked to anyone about it for a long time. Others were able talk about them. And so my first sacred erotic partner, if I may put it that way, left the monastery school. He was forcibly transferred to another monastery where there were no pupils.

I found it courageous that this classmate told his parents about his experiences. I also thought it was a bit of a betrayal. But from then on, of course, I knew that with my experiences I could blackmail those who caused them; that I was holding a means of resistance. And I’ve also seen how easy it is. You talk about it and the man loses out. As a child, especially as a boarding school student, you develop a strategic sense. You know how to be mean against someone. I knew this remedy, I used it a lot. But not against the priests who played sexual games with me.

The scandal was limited at the time. A priest had to change the monastery. The community never found out why. There was nothing to read about it in the newspaper. And as for my slowly awakening sexuality, there were soon others who moved to the vacant position. In me they had made the right choice. I kept silent.

Fifteen years later, in the early eighties, I published a short story called “The Sudden Presents of Heaven”. In it, a first-person narrator reports that he was raped as a monastery boy by his religion teacher, a certain Father G. Literally it says: “He put his bulging piece of meat on my tongue like a consecrated host, smiled at me, said, well, go on, just dare. A stale, meaningless taste, a little disgust. It thrust in my mouth, twitching back and forth, I could no longer escape it. My head was pressed against the tuft of hair from behind, it stretched when the teacher encountered my palate, wanted to slip down the esophagus … "

I probably put it to paper at a time when I already knew porn films. This scene in particular deviates the most from reality. Later on, as the story goes, the first-person narrator left the monastery boarding school without being able to explain to anyone why he did not want to return to the monastery. Morally perfect fiction. Would fit well into today’s debate. And that is exactly why it is bad.

Father G. was an amalgamation of three people with whom I had sexual contacts at the age of twelve to fourteen. In addition, there was a fourth teacher, who fell out of the frame because he taught me that a wife and an astonishingly large crowd of children do not necessarily prevent daddy from being interested in erotic games with boys. In contrast to my protagonist in the short story, I never left the monastery convict, I only dreamed of it. But not because of the sexual occurrences.

The short story was a moral charge, no, a discharge. I had broken with the church by that time and wanted to pay it back to them as drastically as possible. Today I think it was mainly the constant degradation by the ubiquitous corporal punishment that made my feelings of hate grow afterwards. In the years when anti-authoritarian education was being talked about outside the monastery walls, we were beaten with a stick by the protagonists of the religion of love. The religion of love in an Arabic way, one could say. In this sphere of monastic violence, the pedophiles were an oasis of tenderness. The monastery was an excess in this and that direction.

I have to admit to myself today that there were many ways to ward off and prevent sexual contacts at the time. I have not used these options. I wasn’t exactly offering myself, I was too shy for that, but after the first unexpected approaches, I quickly saw who was looking around with a certain inclination. And I have not avoided such approaches, in a way I saw them as an award.

I was introduced to the secret, exciting world of sexuality. A penis that ejaculates. When you are twelve years old, you finally want to see it. That it was Catholic priests who opened this world to me may be unusual. But they weren’t the only ones. I had contacts with peers and older people just as everyone. I was not a socially disturbed child who was helplessly exposed to the instinct of sacred pederasts. I was distraught because at that time I was still a very religious person and wanted to become a priest myself. The moral disturbance was far worse than the erotic confusion.

It is important to me to give my account, at a moment when all the world has suddenly become indignant about such events, as if they had no tradition. Give account, not only about the disturbance, but about all the feelings. In retrospect, feelings that one had should not simply be shaken off in favor of moral indignation as if they had not existed. Not only was it a burden to have such a secret, it was also something special.

Recently, while browsing old photos, I found a letter from the monastery times, a shy love letter that was written to me by a priest, when I was twelve years old. And he had enclosed a photo of himself. Back then I didn’t find it as amazing as I find it today. I boasted to my mother that a priest was so familiar with me and I showed her the photo. She had no suspicions. And when the intrusive priest invited me to the monastery during the holidays, I went there.

I understand that society cannot give pedophiles a free pass. But I also know that they are tender, caring, loving, and far less selfish than you might think. They wouldn’t have to be like that at all because there are children who get involved with curiosity. I was certainly being exploited by these adults, but I also felt taken seriously. We weren’t just doing sexual stuff. One of the three wrote poems. I have still memorized one of his poems to this day. And once we talked about the topic of a school essay that I had to write. The next time we met, he handed me a typewritten sheet on which he had put down his thoughts about the subject. These were the thoughs of an adult. I incorporated them into my school essay and suddenly they became my thoughts. They took me further. The man later married and had children. From my first partner, the one who was later transferred to another monastery, I can almost certainly say that he would not have been able to marry and have a family.

After I had recently reported on my monastery experiences in the course of abuse discussions on Austrian television, I received an email in which a woman told me that a relative of her, a teacher, had just killed herself. He was (rightly) accused of indecently touching a student.

Let’s just take care that we don’t stage a witch hunt now. No question, the children must be protected. And the victims have a right to be heard. But what do we do with the perpetrators? It makes good sense that there are statutes of limitations in the law. There once was a legal understanding for this. The main focus cannot be on perpetrators whose crimes have expired. All people should have a chance to learn how their behavior can stay within the legal framework. And when they have learned it, they have put in more effort than some who now play the morally indignant, although they do not even know the traps of such a disposition.

The main aim of the current discussion of pedophilia and pedosexuality must be to uncover current cases and prevent future ones. Dealing with history is important for the victims. They have an unlimited claim to it. But society? After all, the topic touches the most intimate areas of people. Of victims and perpetrators. No matter what this area is like, it is protected by our social constitution. I don’t want to see these people put in the pillory.

The best way to protect children is to help pedophiles cope with their socially unintegrable tendency in a way that does not affect criminal law. But the current criminalization campaign is going in a completely different direction and is therefore not helpful. It must be possible to offer a form of help to a person who obviously cannot manage his behavior on his own. In a way which does not immediately deny him human rights.

Media-aggravated politicians come up with suggestions on how to tighten criminal law and how to remove limitation periods. If we equate pedophiles with child molesters and sex offenders, we have a bigger media spectacle, but we lose all standards for sensible measures. In my legally untrained eyes, these are different paragraphs.