German archbishop resigns after independent abuse report

News: Germany

The Archbishop of Hamburg has offered his resignation to Pope Francis after being named in an 800 page independent report into clerical abuse in the Archdiocese of Cologne. Archbishop Stefan Hesse served for years as vicar general of the Cologne archdiocese, before being made Archbishop of Hamburg in 2015. 

The report, published Thursday, is the largest and most thorough of its kind to be undertaken by a German diocese. It examines the handling of abuse cases in Cologne dating back to the 1940s. It identified 11 instances where it found Archbishop Hesse to have failed to take appropriate action.

"In order to avert damage to the office of archbishop and the archbishopric of Hamburg, I offer Pope Francis my resignation and ask him to immediately release me from my duties," Hesse said in a video statement released Thursday evening after the report’s release.

Conceding that “mistakes” had been made in the past, Hesse insisted that “I have never participated in a cover-up. Still, I am ready to take my share of the responsibility for the failure of the system."

The report identified nearly 400 victims and more than 240 abusers of minors working for the Church during the period examined, with some two-thirds of the abusers identified as clerics. About half of the cases concerned sexual abuse, with the rest involving either verbal or other physical abuse. Fifty-five percent of the victims were under 14. 

The report was conducted by the Munich law firm Gercke-Wollschläger, and involved months of interviews with victims, family members, archdiocesan employees, bishops, and priests. Lawyers conducting the independent review were also granted access to files dating back more than 80 years.

Presenting the report on March 18, lawyers for the firm said they had found "years of chaos" in the archdiocesan handling of abuse claims.

The report follows months of sustained criticism of the past and present leadership of the Cologne archdiocese, including Hesse, who was, for years, in charge of personnel matters for the archdiocese, serving as vice-vicar general and then vicar general until being named Archbishop of Hamburg in 2015, becoming Germany’s youngest bishop at the age of 48.

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In November last year, Hesse asked Rome to consider the forthcoming report’s conclusions and assess whether they impacted his suitability for office in Hamburg. At the same time, Hesse stood away from his position with the Central Committee of German Catholics, a controversial lay-led group in the country, pending the conclusion of the independent report.

Despite being highly critical of several senior members of archdiocesan leadership, past and present, the report did not name the current archbishop, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, who also referred himself to the Vatican for investigation last year.

In addition to Hesse, the report singled out several senior archdiocesan officials and former officials as having failed to properly handle abuse cases, including the deceased Cardinal Joachim Miesner, who led the archdiocese from 1988-2014. Miesner died in 2017.

Following the report’s release on Thursday, Cardinal Woelki announced the immediate suspension of auxiliary Bishop Dominikus Schwaderlapp and Günter Assenmacher, a senior lay official in the archdiocese, both named in the report.

At the public presentation of the report, the cardinal told German media that "What we have seen shows clearly there was a cover-up." 

"I am ashamed," Woelki said.

Woelki said the report was “a first step,” and that after he studied its full contents he would continue to act to “uncover what happened and what is happening, to clear up any cover-up and to name those responsible.”

In an interview, the cardinal said that he first received the independent report on Thursday, the day of its publication.

“I had promised to have a really independent legal opinion drawn up, on the basis of which officials who have behaved incorrectly in dealing with cases of abuse can be held accountable,” Woelki told CNA Deutsch.

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The cardinal said he felt “relief” that the report had been published, and that public accountability was now possible.

“At the same time I am saddened and upset by what we have heard, about the misconduct that has been identified. Overall, I feel a great responsibility for the way ahead. For me, that means drawing the necessary conclusions from the knowledge that is now accessible to us.”

The cardinal said he would spend the next week digesting the 800-page report and promised further action.

The report’s failure to identify a specific instance of negligence or misconduct by Woelki comes after months of criticism over the handling of past sexual abuse crimes in the archdiocese, one of Germany’s largest. 

Last year, the cardinal suppressed the results of an earlier investigation, citing legal concerns and problems with the report’s methodology.

After he was accused of covering up sexual abuse in the archdiocese in 2020, Woelki referred himself for investigation by the Vatican, saying he would resign if either Rome or the independent investigation determined he had acted inappropriately. 

Last month, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, head of the German bishops’ conference, called Woelki’s handling of the situation a “disaster” and that the archdiocesan leadership had "completely failed as a moral authority."

Woelki’s most prominent critics, including Bätzing, are also leading figures in the Synodal Way, currently being undertaken by the German bishops’ conference in partnership with the Central Committee of German Catholics. The Synodal Way, which has been repeatedly criticized by both Pope Francis and the several different Vatican departments, was opened in 2019, ostensibly as a response to the sexual abuse crisis in the Church in Germany.

The so-called binding synodal process is set to conclude in February next year, and its organizers have repeatedly called for it to challenge Church teaching and discipline on a range of issues, including same-sex unions and women’s ordination.

Woelki has been a critic of the Synodal Way, and has urged the German bishops to remain in line with universal Church teaching and Roman authority.

Following the presentation of the report on Thursday, Woelki said he would send the report to Rome and ask the Vatican to offer its own conclusions on the situation in the archdiocese.