German church apologizes for killing ‘witches’ centuries ago

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A church in Germany is finally apologizing for the indiscriminate killings of 400 suspected “witches” who were tortured and burned at the stake hundreds of years ago.

The Catholic diocese in the Bavarian city of Eichstätt is finally breaking its silence on the executions, which were among about 25,000 killings – primarily of women – in Germany between the 15th and 18th centuries, The Times reported Wednesday.

Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke said the virtual silence on the victims who were burned at the stake had been a “bleeding wound” in the church’s history while promising to install a memorial plaque at the local cathedral dedicated to the persecuted victims.

The long-awaited mea culpa comes after a campaign started in 2011 by a retired German pastor, ultimately leading more than 50 towns to apologize for the witch burnings.

“The church was scared of the Reformation and the witch trials were a means to combat it,” Hartmut Hegeler, the former pastor, told the newspaper. “Anyone turning their back on the Catholic faith was labeled as being in league with the devil. It worked.”

Interrogators of accused witches used brutal methods to extract confessions, including “helmet cutting,” which involved the use of a spiked metal band that was tightened around victims’ heads, according to the report.

In all, about 60,000 people died across Europe as a result of the persecution between the 1400s and 1700s, The Times reported.

“It’s good that they’ve done something, but of course it’s not nearly enough,” said Munich-based artist Wolfram Kastner, who is credited with forcing the Eichstätt diocese to address the witch trials — which were run by secular courts although critics claim the church was culpable, according to the report.

Drawing depicts the burning of 'witches' in Germany.
Drawing depicts the burning of ‘witches’ in Germany.
Alamy Stock Photo

In 2017, Kastner read out the judgments of victims in the cathedral’s square after finding the original interrogation transcripts. One woman, a 36-year-old wealthy innkeeper and mayor’s wife named Ursula Bonschab, was arrested in 1627 and then tortured for 20 days, The Times reported.

Bonschab later confessed to charges including performing “weather magic,” as well as exhuming the bodies of children and having sex with the devil. She was reportedly decapitated by a sword before being burned at the stake.

“Women were tortured 12, 13 times until they confessed to the nonsense the interrogators cooked up in their perverted brains,” Kastner told The Times. “They and their families were robbed of all their assets.”

The plaque, however, is an insufficient measure to recognize the German church’s “bleeding wounds,” Kastner said.

“It should be a matter of course after all these centuries to name and rehabilitate all the victims,” he continued. “But they’re not ready to do that yet.”



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