Cover-up allegations have plunged the Swiss bishops’ conference into crisis on the eve of the publication of a landmark abuse report.
The allegations against six bishops — four active and two retired — were disclosed Sept. 10 by the Swiss Sunday newspaper SonntagsBlick.
The bishops’ conference of Switzerland, which has around 3 million Catholics out of a total population of 8.7 million, announced the same day that the Vatican had asked a Swiss bishop to undertake a preliminary canonical investigation into the claims.
Bishop Joseph Bonnemain of Chur is expected to send a report by the end of 2023 to the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Bishops, which will then decide whether to launch proceedings under Church law.
The bishops’ conference said that public prosecutor’s offices had also been informed of the cases, which include allegations against priests.
The news broke just days before the publication of an independent pilot study on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Switzerland since the mid-20th century, commissioned by the bishops’ conference and compiled by the University of Zurich.
The SonntagsBlick report said that it had obtained a letter making the allegations, which was sent to the country’s apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Martin Krebs, by Fr. Nicolas Betticher, a pastor in the Swiss city of Bern who previously served as a bishops’ conference spokesman.
The newspaper noted that the claims included an allegation that an unnamed member of the Swiss bishops’ conference had sexually harassed a young person.
Three priests in the Diocese of Lausanne, Geneva, and Fribourg were also accused of sexually harassing young people, the paper said. The diocese told SonntagsBlick that it took the allegations “very seriously” and both state and Church bodies were “active.”
Stressing the presumption of innocence and publishing the bishops’ denials, the newspaper said that the prelates accused of mishandling cases were: Bishop Jean Marie Lovey of Sion, in southwestern Switzerland; Bishop Charles Morerod of Lausanne, Geneva, and Fribourg; Bishop Alain de Raemy, an auxiliary bishop of Lausanne, Geneva, and Fribourg; an unnamed former auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Lausanne, Geneva, and Fribourg; and the retired Vatican diplomat Archbishop Jean-Claude Perisset.
The Swiss bishops’ conference confirmed that the nuncio had received the letter in late May. On June 23, the Dicastery for Bishops ordered the preliminary canonical investigation.
The bishops’ conference indicated that Bonnemain had been chosen because of his experience of leading similar probes before his appointment as Bishop of Chur.
Bonnemain — a member of Opus Dei nicknamed the “Bischof mit Bizeps” because of his weight-training routine — told kath.ch, the Swiss Church’s official German-language news site, that he had agreed reluctantly to lead the investigation “for the sake of the victims and justice.”
“I have been commissioned to investigate the allegations that are being made. The aim is to investigate whether those responsible reacted correctly at different times or violated reporting obligations,” said Bonnemain.
“I’m not investigating anyone — it’s about checking the facts and recording the results in a report.”
Asked whether the accused bishops should step aside during the investigation, he said: “I cannot speak or decide for others here.”
A spokeswoman for the Diocese of Lausanne, Geneva, and Fribourg told kath.ch that “the question of whether one or more members of the bishops’ conference should resign or suspend their service is currently being considered.”
The whistleblower Fr. Betticher previously served as vicar general of the diocese, which is immediately subject to the Holy See.
He told kath.ch that in the past everyone had made mistakes in handling abuse cases, including himself.
“Today, we have to face the fact that we didn’t work cleanly for a long time. I watched for a long time and saw that nothing was happening. That is why I informed the Holy See, as the pope also explicitly demands of priests in Vos estis,” he said, referring to the procedures for investigating abuse and negligence issued by Pope Francis in 2019 and revised in March.
Betticher said that his letter had listed “all the cases of abuse of which I am aware,” along with questions intended to help investigators identify the truth.
The priest said he was motivated by a desire to help abuse victims.
“The officials have failed. I also, at that time, as vicar general and judicial vicar. I accept that. But today, 15 years later, I can no longer accept that they continue in this way,” he said.
“I have many conversations with those affected [by abuse]. To this day, those affected experience time and again that their reports remain without consequences for the perpetrators. That is terrible.”
Following the presentation of the pilot study Sept. 12, researchers at the University of Zurich will begin a three-year follow-up project, ending in 2026.
By commissioning a nationwide historical abuse study, the Church in Switzerland is following the same path as in other countries such as France, Portugal, and Spain. The nationwide studies have generated international media coverage and put pressure on Church leaders to reform the handling of abuse cases.
The Swiss bishops’ conference, which consists of the bishops of six Swiss dioceses, their auxiliaries, and two territorial abbots, is due to meet in St. Gallen Sept. 18-20, shortly after the pilot study’s publication.