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Former German bishops’ chairman faces ‘Vos estis’ probe

Former German bishops’ conference chairman Archbishop Robert Zollitsch is facing a Vatican investigation into claims that he covered up abuse.

Archbishop Robert Zollitsch. Wikipedia / Tobias Klenze / CC-BY-SA 4.0.

Zollitsch was heavily criticized in a report published Tuesday on the handling of abuse cases in the Archdiocese of Freiburg, which he led from 2003 until his retirement in 2013.

Presenting the almost 600-page study at an April 18 press conference, independent commission chairman Magnus Striet estimated that there had been more than 250 possible perpetrators of abuse and at least 540 victims in the archdiocese in southwestern Germany since 1945. 

Archbishop Stephan Burger, who has led the archdiocese since 2014, said that his two immediate predecessors — Zollitsch and the late Archbishop Oskar Saier — had “simply ignored Church law that provided for intervention and reporting of cases.”

He said: “It stuns me because Dr. Oskar Saier was also a canon lawyer. Dr. Robert Zollitsch was a long-time personnel manager, became an archbishop, and then also became chairman of the German bishops’ conference. Both knew about the importance as well as the legal relevance of the issue.” 

“Behind this was an esprit de corps that, from today’s perspective, was misconceived. An external image of the Church was to be maintained, which rejected any misconduct. Added to this is the protection of institutions, which takes precedence over everything.”

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Zollitsch released a nine-minute video last October acknowledging that he had mishandled abuse cases.

In the video, recorded on Aug. 31, 2022, he said that his “attitude and actions were guided far too much by the good of the Catholic Church and far too little by sympathy for the suffering of those affected and care for the victims.”

He added: “I believed the statements and promises of the perpetrators all too readily and wanted to give a second chance to those who had been guilty, repented of their behavior in conversation with me, and promised repentance.”

Zollitsch underlined that, while he worked closely with others in the archdiocese, “I am personally responsible for my behavior and expressly acknowledge my guilt.”

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Archbishop Burger announced April 18 that canonical proceedings had begun against Zollitsch.

“As far as the assumption of responsibility by Archbishop Robert Zollitsch is concerned, I cannot speak for him. I can only refer to his statements published so far in the past, also to his statement which he put on his homepage yesterday,” Burger said.

The April 17 statement on Zollitsch’s personal website said that the retired archbishop would not be commenting on the report “out of consideration for the victims of sexualized violence.”

Burger continued: “Whether and in what form canonical consequences are still to be drawn is up to the judgment of the Apostolic See in Rome. The necessary measures for this have been initiated.”, the official website of the Catholic Church in Germany, said that a report had been submitted to Rome in accordance with the motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi, which Pope Francis updated last month.

Vos estis sets out the steps that Church leaders must take when investigating allegations of abuse or administrative negligence on the part of bishops.

A map showing the Archdiocese of Freiburg’s location within Germany. WikiNight via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).

In his statement, Burger noted that he had also made errors in the handling of abuse cases. 

“The report proves that I made mistakes,” the archbishop said. “The report points out that in some places I, as archbishop, have not been self-critical and consistent enough in documenting procedures or demanding that they be followed. In this regard, it is important for me to be even more careful when applying the applicable law in the future.”

Burger has served since September 2022 as deputy chairman of the German bishops’ specialist group on questions of sexual abuse.

Zollitsch was named archbishop of Freiburg, Germany’s second-largest diocese after Cologne, in 2003. He was portrayed by the media as a “liberal” while at the helm of the German bishops’ conference from 2008 to 2014. 

Zollitsch was head of the bishops’ conference in 2010, when the German Church was shaken by widespread revelations of clerical abuse. He discussed the crisis that year with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome. 

Pope Francis accepted Zollitsch’s resignation as archbishop of Freiburg in 2013, shortly after he turned 75.

Freiburg is the latest German diocese to publish an in-depth examination of its handling of abuse cases in the post-war period. Others include the Archdiocese of Cologne, the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, the Diocese of Münster, the Diocese of Osnabrück, the Diocese of Essen, and the Diocese of Mainz

The Mainz study, released in March, offered a scathing assessment of Cardinal Karl Lehmann, who led the diocese in west-central Germany from 1983 to 2016. The report said that the cardinal failed for decades to respond effectively to sexual abuse in the diocese.

Lehmann, considered one of Germany’s leading churchmen until his death in 2018, was president of the country’s bishops’ conference from 1987 to 2008. He was succeeded that year by Zollitsch.

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