German president urged to withhold medal for Catholic bishop

Deutsche Welle [Bonn, Germany]

April 24, 2021

Sex abuse victims have urged the German president not to award an Order of Merit — equal to a knighthood — to Munich’s bishop, Cardinal Reinhard Marx.

Catholic victims of sex abuse urged German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Saturday not to give one of the country’s top honors to Cardinal Reinhard Marx. 

The bishop of Munich served as chair of Germany’s Catholic Bishops’ Conference until 2020. Although outspoken for victims in recent years, Marx also stands accused of concealing cases, including a priest’s misuse of a woman employee and forcing her to abort a pregnancy in 1989.

He is now expected to receive Germany’s top Order of Merit with Star — what in Anglo-Saxon countries would be a knighthood — from Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Victims’ representative threatens to give back his own medal

A group of sex abuse victims say that honoring Marx in this way would render their efforts to shed light on church cover-ups “valueless” and “absurd.” Their representative Peter Bringmann-Henselder, himself a recipient of the Order of Merit with Star, said he would hand back his own medal if next Friday’s award to Cardinal Marx went ahead. 

Bringmann-Henselder was given the medal for his work on supporting victims and is currently serving as a member of Cologne diocese’s ֫ Advisory Committee for Affected Persons [victims]. He argued against honoring Marx in an open letter carried by Dom Radio, Cologne’s Catholic media outlet. 

He urged others similarly credited for victim support, including whistle-blower Jesuit Klaus Mertes, to also return their honors.

Marx has admitted that church leader 'haven't listened enough to the victims'
Marx has admitted that church leader ‘haven’t listened enough to the victims’

What are the complaints against Marx?

Early this year, Trier’s Volksfreund newspaper reported that a devout Catholic diocese employee, forced by the priest, her superior, to abort in 1989, reported the abuse to Marx in 2003. At the time, the cardinal served as the bishop of Trier in northwest Germany.

Numerous diocese officials knew previously but did nothing, said the Volksfreund. A second priest, during confession, had also urged her to abort. A subsequent ecclesiastical investigation was begun in 2005 and then halted.

The sexually abusive priest was first suspended. However, he later got dispensation from Rome and officiated again at mass. His confessional colleague was promoted.

Public Deutschlandfunk radio reported it was “undisputed” that there had been a sexual relationship between the employee and the priest, who was 20 years older. The consequences for the priests were “mild,” but for the woman “hard,” said the broadcaster.

According to the Volksfreund report, Marx’s successor at the top Trier post, Stephan Ackermann, was also informed. Ackermann later became the German Bishops Conference’s special commissioner for abuse cases.

Dom Radio quoted Bringmann-Henselder as recalling cases of sexualized violence in Marx’s current diocese of Freising-Munich. 

An inquiry report which was supposed to be published in 2010 had “disappeared without a sound into the safe,” noted Bringmann-Henselder.

What are the latest steps to uncover sexual abuse?

Marx, bishops’ chairman now based in Munich, admitted in 2018 that: “We haven’t listened enough to the victims.” Last year, he made large donations, including funds for child abuse victims and Mediterranean sea rescues.

Addressing the lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) in Bonn, their retiring chairman Thomas Sternberg reiterated demands that an external independent panel probe cases, saying “too little” had been done.

Winding up its 230-member congress on Saturday, the ZdK appointed a lay panel to recommend investigatory methods and preventative measures for the future.