Open Access Research article

Child sexual abuse in religiously affiliated and secular institutions: a retrospective descriptive analysis of data provided by victims in a government-sponsored reappraisal program in Germany

Nina Spröber1*, Thekla Schneider1, Miriam Rassenhofer1, Alexander Seitz2, Hubert Liebhardt1, Lilith König3 and Jörg M Fegert1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry/Psychotherapy, University Hospital Ulm, Steinhoevelstrasse 5, 89075 Ulm, Germany

2 Soon Systems GmbH, Syrlinstrasse 5, 89073 Ulm, Germany

3 Department of Special Education, University of Education Ludwigsburg, Reuteallee 46, 71634 Ludwigsburg, Germany

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BMC Public Health 2014, 14:282  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-14-282

Published: 27 March 2014



The disclosure of widespread sexual abuse committed by professional educators and clergymen in institutions in Germany ignited a national political debate, in which special attention was paid to church-run institutions. We wanted to find out whether the nature of the abuse and its effect on victims differed depending on whether the abuse had been experienced in religiously affiliated versus secular institutions.


In 2010, the German government established a hotline that victims could contact anonymously to describe their experiences of sexual abuse. The information provided by callers was documented and categorized. Our analysis looked at a subset of the data collected, in order to compare the nature of the abuse experienced at three types of institutions: Roman Catholic, Protestant, and non–religiously affiliated. Non-parametric tests were used to compare frequency distributions, and qualitative data were analyzed descriptively.


Of the 1050 victims in our sample, 404 had been in Roman Catholic, 130 in Protestant, and 516 in non-religious institutions. The overall mean age at the time of reporting was 52.2 years. Males (59.8%) outnumbered females. Victims who had been in religiously affiliated institutions were significantly older than those who had been in secular institutions. Almost half the victims had been abused physically as well as sexually, and most victims reported that the abuse had occurred repeatedly and that the assaults had been committed by males. Patterns of abuse (time, type, and extent), and the gender of the offenders did not differ between the three groups. Intercourse was more frequently reported by older victims and by females. Similar percentages of victims in all groups reported current psychiatric diagnoses (depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD). Significantly more victims from Protestant institutions reported having current psychosocial problems.


The results suggest that child sexual abuse in institutions is attributable to the nature of institutional structures and to societal assumptions about the rights of children more than to the attitudes towards sexuality of a specific religion. The exploratory data arising from this study may serve as a starting point for building hypotheses, and may point the way toward improvements in prevention and intervention strategies.

Child sexual abuse; Religiously affiliated residential care centres; Non-religiously-affiliated residential care centres; Psychosocial consequences; Prevention