BERLIN – A Roman Catholic archbishop in Germany announced his resignation and two other senior officials were suspended after a report found decades of “systematic cover-up” in the Church’s handling of allegations of sexual abuse by clergy members.
The 800-page report covering the years 1975 to 2018 in the Archdiocese of Cologne was published on Thursday after five months of intensive investigation. It was critical of the actions of Stefan Hesse, who had worked in the Archdiocese of Cologne and is now Archbishop of Hamburg.
Archbishop Hessen said he would offer to resign. “In order to avoid damaging the office of the archbishop or the diocese of Hamburg, I offer Pope Francis my resignation and ask him to release me from my duties immediately,” he said in a statement.
The archbishop said he had always tried to responsibly deal with allegations of abuse and denied any intention to hide wrongdoing during his tenure in Cologne, but said he would accept the consequences of the results.
The report found no wrongdoing by the current Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki from Cologne, but an auxiliary bishop serving in the archdiocese and the head of the ecclesiastical court were accused of having acted inappropriately.
None of the named persons was accused of criminal misconduct, although a copy of the report was sent to the public prosecutor in Cologne for review. Cardinal Woelki said a copy would also be sent to the Vatican.
“As of today, you can no longer say that we had no idea,” said Cardinal Woelki after the report was published – which he had not seen before, but which he feared. “I am deeply moved and ashamed of this, and I am convinced that your actions must have consequences for clergy.”
The publication of the report by Cologne lawyer Björn Gercke was eagerly awaited amid growing frustration at Cardinal Woelki’s refusal to publish the results of an earlier investigation by a Munich law firm into the conduct of church leaders. A similar review of the Munich company for misconduct in the neighboring diocese of Aachen was published.
Germany is largely secular and less than a third of its 82 million inhabitants belong to the Catholic Church. However, the church remains a powerful institution that is deeply embedded in German culture and social structures, especially in the western region around Cologne. The church has extensive land and operates several hospitals, daycare centers, and nursing homes that employ more than a million people.
In Mr Gercke’s report, eight people, two of whom are dead, were accused of misconduct in a total of 75 cases for failing to report abuse to the competent authorities or for failing to protect the victims adequately. He stressed that the report focuses on how the Church has dealt with allegations of abuse rather than specific cases of abuse.
Cardinal Wölki’s predecessor, Archbishop Joachim Meisner, who died in 2017, is also said to have acted improperly in 24 cases. Archbishop Meisner also kept a secret file called “Brothers in the Fog” which contained details of allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse.
At the same time, it found that church leaders and others responsible for handling abuse complaints did not keep accurate records or records, said Kerstin Stirner, a lawyer who worked on the report, at a press conference in Cologne.
For decades there was an opaque system in which no one felt responsible, she said.
“It was marked by chaos” and a “lack of responsibility and misunderstanding” that only changed in 2015 when a structure for reporting and handling cases of abuse was put in place, said Ms. Stirner.
Mr. Gercke recommended tightening abuse reporting procedures and improving the accuracy of records to prevent future misconduct.
He also said the church needs to change an internal culture that is more focused on saving the institution’s reputation than protecting the victims.
The results of the as yet unpublished report by the Munich company should have been presented in March of last year. But after weeks of delaying its publication, Cardinal Woelki said it had such serious problems that it could not be published. This led to the public suspicion that there was something to be covered up.
Over the past year, the cardinal has received widespread criticism for failing to make the report public, and more than 12,000 parishioners have either left or made an appointment to leave the Church.
Since 2010 the Bishops’ Conference has set up a hotline for abuse and a bishop as its own commissioner for this issue.