BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's justice minister said on Thursday the country's Roman Catholic Church appeared to be shrinking from independent scrutiny after bishops sacked a top criminologist they had hired to investigate clerical sexual abuse.
Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said the German bishops had initially committed to an outside study after devastating abuse revelations in 2010 which saw 600 people file claims against priests, but said they now seemed to want to control which findings would be published.
Victims' groups and sympathisers were outraged by the Catholic bishops' decision on Wednesday to sack Christian Pfeiffer, a man described by Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger as one of Germany's foremost criminal experts.
"It appears that conducting an independent, serious study into the abuse cases, as originally intended, is impossible for the Church," she told Deutschlandfunk radio. "This is a shame, as it gives the impression that ultimately they (the Catholic Church) did not want everything to be independently studied."
Investigations into the Church's handling of child molesting have been conducted in recent years in other countries, sometimes with devastating results for the reputation of the church involved.
Matthias Kopp, a spokesman for the German Catholic Bishops' conference, told Reuters television there had been a mutual breakdown in trust and said Pfeiffer's claims that the Church was obstructing him were populist.
"The mercurial Professor Pfeiffer saw things one way one morning and then had totally different ideas the next day. That was rather exhausting on such a project."
Pfeiffer has said the bishops wanted to change previously agreed guidelines for the project to include a final veto over publishing its results, which he could not accept.
"That ultimately is censorship and cannot be allowed to happen in a free country," he said.
Norbert Denef, a spokesman for the Netzwerk B group for victims of sexual abuse, said the German Catholic Church's action showed it remained unable to accept responsibility for clerical sexual abuse.
He urged politicians to make reporting and prosecuting abuse cases a legal obligation to prevent institutional cover-ups.
About 180,000 Catholics left the Church in Germany in 2010 in protest over the scandal, a 40 percent jump over the previous year.
Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said an independent study was critical to discovering whether there were structures in the Catholic Church that facilitated sexual abuse and what could be done to prevent it.