Pope decides to keep criticized archbishop, issues ‘spiritual timeout’

The Hill

September 24, 2021

By Celine Castronuovo

The Vatican announced Friday that Pope Francis has refused to accept the resignation of a German archbishop widely criticized for his handling of church sex abuse allegations, instead issuing a “spiritual timeout.”

The Holy See said Francis met with Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, the archbishop of Cologne, last week for a “long conversation,” regarding “major mistakes in his approach to the issue of coming to terms with abuse overall, especially at the level of communication,” the Catholic News Agency reported.

“This has contributed significantly to a crisis of confidence in the archdiocese that has disturbed many of the faithful,” the Vatican added.

The statement also said the pope “is counting on” Woelki and recognized “his loyalty to the Holy See and his concern for the unity of the Church.”

“At the same time, it is obvious that the archbishop and the archdiocese need a time of pause, renewal and reconciliation,” the Vatican said, adding that Francis has approved Woelki’s request for leave running from mid-October to early March. 

Woelki said in his own statement Friday, “I go this way with the clear message of the Holy Father that we have cleared up seriously and comprehensively and have not covered up anything.”

“I would like to ask you to pray for the archdiocese and for me in the coming weeks. I also promise you my fervent prayer,” he added.

Woelki has come under intense scrutiny from members of the church after issuing a report detailing 75 cases in which eight high-ranking officials, including Woelki’s late predecessor, failed to investigate, report or issue punishments even though they were made aware of sex abuse allegations against both clergy and lay church employees.

While the report did not place any legal responsibility or allegations of neglect of duty on Woelki, many called on him to resign, especially after he revealed that he declined to release an initial report on how church officials first responded to accusations of sexual abuse, citing legal concerns, according to The Associated Press

The AP reported that the archbishop’s findings included that Hamburg Archbishop Stefan Hesse, who previously worked as a top church official in Cologne, neglected his duties in at least 11 cases.

Francis granted Hesse a period of spiritual leave in late March. Hesse has since offered his resignation to the Vatican, but the pope rejected it last week, arguing that the church leader’s reported mistakes were not committed with the intention of covering up sex abuse allegations.