Telephone hot lines in Europe offering help to people claiming abuse by Roman Catholic priests are being deluged with calls as the crisis spreads – with one center reporting complaints jumping from about 10 cases a year to more than a thousand in the past few weeks.

Experts say the record influx of calls reflects an increasing realization among victims that they are not alone and that they will not be scorned for breaking their silence about horrors that in many cases go back decades.

“Until now, many people were afraid they wouldn’t be respected,” said Max Friedrich, a prominent Austrian psychiatrist. “There’s also a certain comfort knowing you’re not the only one to have experienced such abuse.”

In the Netherlands, the Help and Law line was set up in 1995 and generally dealt with roughly 10 reports of abuse per year. Since March it has received some 1,300 new reports, said Pieter Kohnen, spokesman for the Dutch Bishops’ Conference, which runs the line.

As with similar help lines, not every complaint turns into an actual case – meaning the caller is assigned a legal adviser to guide him or her through the process.

Still, Help and Law is now dealing with nearly 50 cases, compared with 10 to 14 for most years, and the number is likely to rise as the center plows through a backlog of complaints, according to spokesman Ben Spekman.

“We have started more cases in the last month than in the previous three years combined,” Spekman said. “It is a significant increase.”

Germany’s bishops conference, which launched its hot line March 30, reported this week that 2,700 people have called it in its first three days, while an older number in Germany run by a pro-reform group, We Are Church, said calls have jumped dramatically.

In Austria, if the perpetrators are still alive, they are tracked down and confronted with the allegations, according to an Austrian Web site that provides an overview of the country’s church abuse complaint centers. Austria has nine church-run offices that allow victims to report abuse – one for each diocese. According to the Vienna hot line, 174 contacts were made between January and the end of March – compared to 17 in all of 2009.

Some claim it is ludicrous to expect victims to contact church-sponsored hot lines because they are sometimes run by clergy and represent an institution that covered up or ignored cases in the past.

Critics include a newly created Austrian victims’ group that calls itself the Platform of Those Affected by Church Violence. It set up its own hot line March 23 and has logged 203 contacts since then.

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