Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki offers to quit in sex abuse row

The Times/The Sunday Times [London, England]

March 2, 2022

By David Crossland

The head of Germany’s largest archdiocese has offered to resign in reaction to months of criticism of his handling of sexual abuse cases.

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, who resumed his duties on Wednesday after a five-month sabbatical triggered by a Vatican investigation into his leadership, said Pope Francis was considering his offer and would make a decision “in due course”.

The German Catholic church has been shaken by recent revelations that church leaders covered up abuse by priests and neglected victims over decades. Tens of thousands of Catholics have quit the church in protest.

It is unclear whether the Pope will accept Woelki’s offer. Last year he rejected a resignation request from Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich who had admitted sharing responsibility for the “catastrophe of sexual abuse by clerics”.

Woelki’s move follows what critics said was a half-hearted apology last month from the former Pope Benedict, accused in a report into abuse in his former archdiocese of Munich of bearing responsibility for the sexual abuse of children by a paedophile priest he had described as a mere “exhibitionist”.

Benedict was accused of “trivialising” sex crimes against minors, prioritising criminal clergy over their victims and “turning a blind eye” to offences under his jurisdiction. Benedict asked the victims for forgiveness but rejected accusations that he was involved in covering up cases while he was archbishop of Munich.

Woelki, 65, a vocal opponent of proposed reforms such as permitting female priests and abolishing priestly celibacy, has been a focal point of criticism since late 2020 when he halted the publication of an independent report into abuse in Cologne, citing legal concerns.

A second report last year exonerated him of personal dereliction of duty but accused other church officials in his archdiocese, including two former cardinals, of failing to investigate abuse with the necessary rigour.

Pope Francis said last year that Woelki had made “big mistakes”, especially in terms of his style of communication, but had not wanted to cover up crimes.

Protesters opposed to Woelki gathered outside Cologne Cathedral today, where the traditional Ash Wednesday Mass was held without the cardinal, who cancelled his attendance amid criticism of his return voiced by church officials and grassroots members.

In a “pastoral letter” to the faithful, he admitted than he bore responsibility for the “uncertainty, lack of understanding, mistrust and even rejection of me as a person”. But he indicated that he was ready to carry on if the Pope let him. “For this I ask you for your openness, your patience, for giving me, no, us another chance,” Woelki wrote.

Tim Kurzbach, chairman of the Cologne diocesan council, which represents Catholic laypeople, said Woelki’s return risked triggering a “meltdown”.

He also criticised Woelki’s rejection of reforms. “It would be a really serious indictment if a few arch-conservatives sought to drive others out of the church because they can’t stand up to their arguments,” Kurzbach said.