Prominent German Cardinal Offers to Resign Over Church Sexual Abuse

New York Times [New York NY]

June 4, 2021

By Melissa Eddy

In a letter to Pope Francis, Cardinal Reinhard Marx said he saw his resignation as an opportunity to take responsibility for the abuses of past decades.

[Includes video excerpts from the speech by Cardinal Marx.]

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, a leading figure in Germany’s Roman Catholic Church and a member of the Pope Francis’s advisory council, said on Friday that he had offered his resignation in a personal gesture to take responsibility for sexual abuses by priests over the past decades.

Speaking to reporters outside of the offices of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, the cardinal, who has not been accused of abuse, said he had been considering the decision for months. After spending the weeks leading up to Easter in prayer and reflection, he wrote a letter to the pope, asking to be relieved of his duties.

“It is important to me to share the responsibility for the catastrophe of the sexual abuse by church officials over the past decades,” the cardinal wrote in his letter, which was sent to the Vatican on May 21. In it, he said that he believed Catholics were at a “dead end” over their handling of abuses, which first came to light in Germany in 2002 and culminated in the release of a report by the German Bishops’ Conference in 2018, documenting the sexual abuse of almost 3,700 children over seven decades.

During a news conference after the release of that study, the cardinal, who was serving as the head of the conference, was asked whether any bishops had resigned over the findings. None had. Cardinal Marx said on Friday that the question had stayed with him and led to his decision to try to lead by example.

Still from Reuters video. Caption: Cardinal Reinhard Marx, a leading figure in Germany’s Roman Catholic Church, said on Friday that he had offered his resignation to share in taking collective responsibility for sexual abuses by priests. Arne Dedert / DPA, via Agence France-Presse - Getty Images
Still from Reuters video. Caption: Cardinal Reinhard Marx, a leading figure in Germany’s Roman Catholic Church, said on Friday that he had offered his resignation to share in taking collective responsibility for sexual abuses by priests. Arne Dedert / DPA, via Agence France-Presse – Getty Images

“I believe one possibility to express this willingness to take responsibility is my resignation,” the cardinal wrote in his letter, which was released by his archdiocese in agreement with Francis. “In doing so, I may be able to send a personal signal for a new beginning, for a new awakening of the church, not only in Germany. . I would like to show that it is not the institution that stands in the foreground, but the mission of the Gospel.”

He added: “I therefore strongly request you to accept this resignation.”

Cardinal Marx told reporters that Francis had agreed to publication of his letter, but had asked that he continue to carry out his duties until the pope decided whether to accept it. The Vatican had no further comment on Friday.

Catholic cardinals are asked to resign when they reach the age of 75, so at 67, Cardinal Marx could serve for eight more years. Since 2008 he has been the head of the Catholic Church in Germany’s southern state of Bavaria — the same archdiocese that Joseph Ratzinger led from 1977 to 1982, years before becoming Pope Benedict XVI.

A report is expected this summer about the handling of sexual abuse cases in the Munich archdiocese.

In 2010, it emerged that in Ratzinger’s time as archbishop there, a priest who had received therapy after accusations of molesting boys was allowed to continue working with children in his pastoral duties, where he committed further abuses. Cardinal Marx expressed “deep shame” over the allegations of abuse at the time, but went on to defend the overall integrity of the church.

Over time, his thinking on the role of the church as an institution evolved, with an increasing emphasis on the need for reform.

In 2018, while serving as the head of the German Bishops Conference, he helped to form a discussion forum, called “Synodal Path,” focused on how to bring about structural change in the church, focusing on issues of celibacy, homosexuality and power structures. These topics would be off limits in other countries, but Germany’s church is among the most powerful and most liberal. It has been losing members — more than 270,000, in 2019 alone — because they are frustrated with what they see as an outdated approach to sexual morality and a failure to punish priests accused of abusing children.

In 2020, the cardinal set up a foundation called “Spes et Salus — Hope and Heal,” with an endowment of 500,000 euros, or about $610,000, of his own earnings that he said he had saved over his lifetime as a priest. The foundation’s aim is to help victims of abuse by the church to heal and reconcile with the institution.

In his letter, the cardinal stressed his continued commitment to efforts to reform the church and expressed hope that his personal decision to take responsibility through the resignation could serve as a turning point to encourage the reform needed.

But the German attempts at reform have incited fierce resistance inside Germany and out, primarily from conservative bishops and priests who are opposed to attempts to alter church doctrine.

Georg Bätzing, the Bishop of Limburg who currently serves as head of the German Bishops’ Conference, expressed his respect for Cardinal Marx’s decision, adding that it made clear that the German church needs to continue its efforts to reform.

“The Synodal Path was created to look for systemic answers to the crisis,” the bishop said. “The basic, theological discussions which determine the Synodal Path are therefore a significant and important part of this process.”

Respect also came from the Rev. Hans Zollner, a member of the Vatican’s child-protection commission and the president of the Center for Child Protection of the Pontifical Gregorian University.

“Cardinal Marx has shown that the mission and the credibility of the church and its officials are of greater importance than his personal position,” he told the Catholic journal The Tablet.

The cardinal’s offer to resign comes at a time when the pope is doubling down on his view that the sexual abuse crisis is primarily a consequence of imbalances in power dynamics between clerics and other church leaders and those entrusted to their care, regardless of their age.

On Tuesday, the Vatican announced that Francis had made changes to the Vatican’s Code of Canon Law, the legal framework for the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics, after years of consultations.

The sexual abuse crisis exploded in Germany in 2010, when former students of a Berlin high school, Canisius College, said teachers had abused them in the 1970s and 1980s. The crisis deepened in 2016, after an investigator said more than 200 boys in a choir led by the brother of Benedict XVI were abused over almost four decades.

Last week, the Vatican dispatched two senior bishops to the archdiocese of Cologne, Germany’s largest and one of the most powerful in the global church, to investigate the archbishop’s handling of allegations of sexual abuse of children at the hands of priests going back to 1975.

Cologne’s archbishop, Rainer Maria Woelki, commissioned a lawyer to conduct an independent review of how the Catholic Church handled reports of abuse, only to shelve it over what he called methodological shortcomings. A second report found decades of “systematic cover-up” at the hands of church officials in the archdiocese, including Stefan Hesse, who is now the archbishop of Hamburg.

Archbishop Hesse offered his resignation to the pope in March and has since been on leave from his duties.

Gaia Pianigiani and Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting from Italy.