Cologne Catholic Church Failed in Handling Sex Abuse Claims, Report Finds

New York Times [New York NY]

March 18, 2021

By Melissa Eddy

The archbishop of Hamburg offered his resignation and the cardinal of Cologne suspended two senior officials over failures to report accusations of clerical sexual abuse.

Berlin – A Roman Catholic archbishop in Germany offered his resignation and two other high-ranking officials were suspended in the wake of a report that found decades of “systematic cover-up” in the church’s handling of accusations of sexual abuse at the hands of clergy members.

The 800-page report, examining the years 1975 to 2018 at the Archdiocese of Cologne, was released on Thursday after five months of intense investigation. It was critical of the actions of Stefan Hesse, who had worked at the Archdiocese of Cologne and is now the archbishop of Hamburg.

Archbishop Hesse said he would offer to step down. “To prevent damage to the office, of the archbishop or the Diocese of Hamburg, I am offering Pope Francis my resignation and ask him to immediately relieve me of my duties,” he said in a statement.

The archbishop said that he had always sought to act responsibly in his handling of abuse allegations and denied any intention to hide wrongdoing during his tenure in Cologne, but said that he would accept the consequences of the findings.

The report found no wrongdoing by the current cardinal of Cologne, Rainer Maria Woelki, but an auxiliary bishop serving in the archdiocese and the head of its ecclesiastical court were accused of acting improperly.

None of those named were accused of criminal wrongdoing, although a copy of the report was sent to prosecutors in Cologne for review. Cardinal Woelki said a copy would also be sent to the Vatican.

“As of today, it is no longer possible to say we had no idea,” Cardinal Woelki said after the release of the report — which he had not previously seen, but which he said he had been fearing. “I am deeply moved and shamed by this, and I am convinced that for clerics, their actions must have consequences.”

The release of the report, by Björn Gercke, a lawyer in Cologne, had been eagerly awaited amid growing frustration over Cardinal Woelki’s refusal to make public the results of an earlier investigation by a Munich-based law firm into the conduct of church leaders. A similar examination by that Munich firm into misconduct in the neighboring Diocese of Aachen was made public.

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, left, said at a news conference in Cologne, Germany, on Thursday that he was “deeply moved and shamed” by the report’s findings.Credit...Pool photo by Andreas Rentz
Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, left, said at a news conference in Cologne, Germany, on Thursday that he was “deeply moved and shamed” by the report’s findings. [Also pictured: Björn Gercke (center) and Kerstin Stirner (right).] Credit…Pool photo by Andreas Rentz

Germany is largely secular, and less than a third of its 82 million inhabitants belong to the Catholic Church. But the church remains a powerful institution, deeply embedded in German culture and social structures, especially in the western region around Cologne. The church has extensive property holdings and runs several hospitals, day care centers and nursing homes that employ more than a million people.

Mr. Gercke’s report accused eight people, two of whom are dead, in a total of 75 instances of misconduct by failing to report abuse to the appropriate authorities or to adequately protect victims. He stressed that the report focused on how the church had handled abuse accusations and not on specific instances of abuse.

Cardinal Woelki’s predecessor, Archbishop Joachim Meisner, who died in 2017, was also said to have failed to act properly in 24 instances. Archbishop Meisner also kept a secret file, titled “Brothers in the Mist,” that included details of accusations of sexual misconduct and abuse, the report found.

At the same time, it found that church leaders and others responsible for handling complaints of abuse failed to keep accurate records or documentation, Kerstin Stirner, a lawyer who worked on the report, said at a news conference in Cologne.

An opaque system existed for decades in which no one felt responsible, she said.

“It was marked by chaos” and a “lack of responsibility and misunderstanding” that changed only in 2015, when a structure was established for reporting and handling abuse cases, Ms. Stirner said.

Mr. Gercke recommended further strengthening the procedures for reporting abuse and improving the accuracy of record-keeping as part of efforts to prevent future misconduct.

He also said the church needed to change an internal culture that focused more on salvaging the institution’s reputation than on protecting the victims.

The results of the still-unreleased report by the Munich firm were to have been presented last March. But after weeks of delaying its release, Cardinal Woelki said it had problems so grave that it could not be made public. That led to public suspicion that there was something to cover up.

Over the past year, the cardinal has been widely criticized over the failure to release the report, and more than 12,000 parishioners have either quit the church or made an appointment to do so.

Since 2010, the Bishops’ Conference has run a hotline for abuse, and had a bishop serving as its own commissioner on the issue.