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"Don't let this become a witch hunt"

Austrian writer Josef Haslinger, who was sexually abused by paedophile priests in his youth, argues for a more nuanced and prudent approach to the problem.

In Austria, every time it emerges that another Catholic priest has been unable to restrain his sexual urges, my phone rings. It has almost become a tradition. It's as if I were an expert on all matters relating to paedophilia or paedosexuality. As a child, I did indeed have a number of experiences in this area, and I did indeed write about them. But I can't be an expert because I wrote about them differently before than I do now.

I was twelve years old when a priest, my then religious studies teacher, first showed interest in my small penis and was obviously aroused. A state that will be unfamiliar to most twelve-year-olds, unless they have the sort of parents who don't bother to keep their sexuality to themselves. It took a while before my religious studies teacher dared to get more intimate. Having observed my lack of protest, he soon began to seek out opportunities to repeat our little game, and take things a bit further. I played along for several rounds. It never even occurred to me to do anything serious about the matter. Which is why I was in no position to end it.

The incidents upset me, as they say, I did not know what to think of them, I talked to no one about them for a long time. Others, though, did talk about them. And so I lost my first sacred erotic partner, if I can call him that, while still in boarding school. He was packed off to another monastery that had no pupils.

I thought my fellow pupils were very brave to tell their parents about these experiences. In a way, though, it also felt like betrayal. But from that point on, I knew that I would be able to use these incidents to blackmail the people who had initiated them; I had my defence in my hand. And I also saw how easy it could be. You only had to talk, and the man would get the short straw. As a child, and particularly as a child in a boarding school, you develop a sense of strategy. You learn how to be cruel. I knew about this sort of thing, I had used it often enough. But never against priests who played sex games with me.

No huge scandal ensued. One priest was sent to another monastery. Why, the community never discovered. There was no mention of it in the media. And as for my slowly developing sexuality, others soon came along to fill the vacant position. I was the perfect choice for them. I held my tongue.

Fifteen years later, in the early eighties, I published a short story called "Die plötzlichen Geschenke des Himmels" (heaven's sudden gifts). In it, the first-person narrator describes how, as a pupil in a monastery school, he was raped by his religious teacher, a certain Father G. The words I used were these: "He laid his bulging piece of meat on my tongue like a holy communion wafer, smiling at me, he said, right, come on, you know you can do it. A stale, insipid taste, slight disgust. Then he shoved it into my mouth, twitching, I couldn't get away from him now. My head was being pressed from behind against the bush of hair, my religious studies teacher thrust against the roof of my mouth, stretching me, trying to push his way into my oesophagus."

When I wrote these words, I was already familiar with porn films. This particular scene bore the least resemblance to reality. In the story, the first-person narrator then ran away from his Catholic boarding school, without being able to make anyone understand why he didn't want to return. Morally irreproachable fiction. It would fit perfectly into today's debate. And this is precisely why it is wrong.

Father G. was a hybrid of three people with whom I had sexual contact between the ages of 12 and 14. Then there was a fourth mentor who did not fit the picture because he had showed me that a wife and an astonishingly large number of children was still not enough to keep a family man from indulging his interest in little erotic games with young boys. Unlike the protagonist in my short story, however, I never ran away from my monastery school, I only dreamed of doing so. But this had nothing to do with the sexual incidents.

The short story was a moral denunciation, no, an offloading. By that time I had left the church and wanted to take my revenge, in as drastic a way as possible. Looking back, I think that it was primarily the constant humiliation and the ubiquitous corporal punishment that triggered my feelings of hatred. At a time when people outside the monastery walls were talking about anti-authoritarian education, we were being beaten with sticks by the protagonists of the religion of love. In this sphere of monastic violence, the paedophiles were an oasis of tenderness. The monastery was excessive in both directions.

I have to admit that there were plenty of opportunities at the time to ward off these sexual encounters, and indeed to end them. I did not take them. I didn't exactly offer myself up, I was too shy for that, but after the initial unexpected advances, I soon saw who, due to certain leanings, was on the look out. And I did not avoid the advances, in a certain way I felt honoured.

I was being initiated into the secret, thrilling world of sexuality. A penis, that ejaculates. By the time you reach twelve, you are dying to see one. It might be unusual that it was Catholic priests who opened this world to me. But they were not the only ones. I had just as much contact with boys my age and older as others did. I was not some socially disturbed child at the mercy of holy paedophile sex drives. I was upset because at the time I was deeply religious and wanted to become a priest myself. The moral distress was much worse than the erotic confusion.

Now, when all the world is suddenly up in arms about such matters, as if there were no tradition for them, I feel obliged to tell people not only about the distress, but about the whole spectrum of feelings. Feelings that were there should not just be shaken off in retrospect, in the interests of moral outrage, as if they never existed. It was not only a burden to have a secret like this, it was also something special.

Recently, while going through old photos, I discovered a letter from the monastery, a shy love letter which I had been sent at the age of twelve by an ordained priest. And he had included a photo of himself. It seems astonishing today, but not so then. I boasted to my mother that an ordained priest was so intimate with me, and I showed her the photo. She was not suspicious in any way. And when the importunate priest invited me back to the monastery during the holidays, I went.

I understand that society cannot give carte blanche to paedophiles. But I also know that these people are gentle, caring, loving and much less egotistical than everyone imagines. And they don't need to be, because there are enough children curious enough to get involved. I was certainly exploited by these adults, but I felt I was being taken seriously. We didn't just talk about sexuality. One of the three men wrote poetry. I still know one of his poems by heart. And once we talked about the topic of an essay which I had been given to write. And the next time we met, he gave me a piece of paper on which he had typed his thoughts on the subject. They were the thoughts of an adult. I used them in my essay and, suddenly, they became my thoughts. They sharpened my thinking. The man later married and had children. Of my first partner, the one who was sent off to another monastery, I can confidently say that he would not have been capable of marriage and family.

After talking about my experiences in the monastery on Austrian TV in the wake of the recent child abuse discussions, I received an email from a woman telling me that a relative of hers, a teacher, had just committed suicide. He had (rightly) been found guilty of indecently touching a pupil.

We mustn't allow this to turn into a witch hunt. Of course we must protect the children. And the victims have the right to be heard. But what should we do with the perpetrators? It is not for no reason that the law has a statute of limitations. This was born of a one-time sensitivity for justice.  We cannot simply focus on perpetrators whose crimes come under the statute of limitations. Everyone should be given a chance to learn to keep their behaviour within legal limits. And if they have learned this, it means they have made considerably more effort than many of those who are feigning moral outrage although they know nothing of the pitfalls of such leanings.

The key aim of the current focus on paedophilia and paedosexuality has to be to uncover cases that are happening now and avoid ones in the future. It is important for the victims to work through the past. They have an unlimited right to do so. But society? Let's not forget that this touches on people's most private parts. This goes for victims and perpetrators alike. However people are made, they are protected by the constitution. I do not want to see these people pilloried.

The best way to protect the children is to help the paedophiles cope with their socially-unacceptable inclinations in a way that doesn't break the law. But the current criminalisation campaign goes in a very different direction and is not helpful in any way. It must be possible to offer a person, who obviously cannot manage it alone, some form of help to keep their behaviour under control - which does not immediately deny them their human rights.

Media-obsessed politicians are falling over themselves to make suggestions of how to step up legislation and lift the statutory period of limitation. If we equate paedophiles with child molesters and sex offenders we will inflate the media spectacle but we will have lost a yardstick for sensible action. To my eyes, which have no training in such matters, these come under different legal paragraphs.


Josef Haslinger was born 1955 in Zwettl, Lower Austria and is one of Austria's most prominent writers. His novel "Opernball" was a 1995 bestseller. His most recent book, "Phi Phi Island" (2007), describes his experience of the 26 December tsunami in 2004. Josef Haslinger teaches literary aesthetics at the Literary Institute in Leipzig.

This article was originally published in German in Die Welt on 13 March, 2010.

Translation:lp - let's talk european