A sign placed next to two cardinals’ tombs criticizing their handling of abuse cases is stirring controversy in Germany.
The noticeboard was placed in the refurbished crypt of Paderborn Cathedral in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia by the tombs of Cardinal Lorenz Jaeger and Cardinal Johannes Joachim Degenhardt.
Jaeger led the Paderborn archdiocese from 1941 to 1973, when he was succeeded by Degenhardt, who was in office until his death in 2002.
The text beside the two cardinals’ tombs reads: “From today’s perspective, the archbishops buried here made serious mistakes in dealing with sexual abuse during their time in office.”
“All too often they put the protection and reputation of the institution and the perpetrators above the suffering of the victims.”
The sign adds that visitors soon will be able to read further information following the installation of a QR code at the site directing them to a website.
“This website will map the failures of the two former archbishops of Paderborn as well as information about their life achievements,” said a spokeswoman for the archdiocese.
In a July 14 op-ed published by the Cologne archdiocese’s news website Domradio.de, Sr. Anna Mirijam Kaschner said she was dismayed by the text, which was drafted by members of the cathedral chapter and approved by abuse survivor representatives.
Kaschner, who grew up in the Paderborn diocese and serves as the general secretary of the Nordic bishops’ conference, questioned the sign’s rationale.
“If you look at social media, you can read that it is good, in the sense of shedding light on abuse, to put up this ‘blame board,’” wrote Kaschner, a member of the Missionary Sisters of the Precious Blood.
“But isn’t it also part of shedding light that the accused persons can explain themselves, take a stand, and also ask for forgiveness? All this is now unfortunately not possible for both cardinals.”
She asked why similar signs should not be placed by the graves of different kinds of wrongdoers.
“As a Christian, you can only answer: Because I believe in a just God who will not only judge the living but also the dead,” she said. “So that abuse panel in the crypt of Paderborn Cathedral on the grave of the two cardinals is ultimately nothing more than a sign of deep unbelief, that God is not just and will not hold the two cardinals accountable.”
Johannes Norpoth, the spokesman for the German bishops’ victim advisory council, responded with a July 18 open letter in which he strongly criticized Kaschner’s op-ed.
He said that the text referring to the two cardinals did not consist of “vague assumptions or one-sided accusations by those affected,” but was based on the findings of an independent study of the handling of abuse cases from 1941 to 2002 commissioned by the archdiocese in 2020.
In December 2021, an interim report concluded that Jaeger and Degenhardt gave priests accused of abuse new assignments where they continued to commit offenses. It accused the two cardinals of showing concern for the accused but not for victims. It also reported that members of the archdiocese tried to persuade abuse survivors and their families not to press charges.
The researchers’ mandate was extended this year to include the tenure of Archbishop Hans-Josef Becker, who led the Paderborn archdiocese from 2003 to 2022.
With the see currently lying vacant, the archdiocese has sought to involve lay people in the selection of a new archbishop in line with a resolution endorsed by Germany’s “synodal way.”
The Paderborn archdiocese, established in the year 799, operates under the Prussian Concordat of 1929, which gives its cathedral chapter a leading role in selecting a new archbishop. The chapter submits its list of candidates to the pope, who sends back three names. The canons select one of the candidates as archbishop in a secret ballot.
The archdiocese wanted a 28-member group of lay people and canons to choose from the three names identified by the pope. But laity would only be able to assist in the selection of an archbishop from the final three candidates if the pope extended pontifical secrecy to the whole group.
The archdiocese announced in April that Rome had rejected a request to extend pontifical secrecy, meaning that the lay people will not be permitted to view the final list of three candidates.
In his open letter to Kaschner, Norporth wrote: “It would certainly be relevant if the deceased former bishops could still be heard on this matter themselves. But certainly not in the sense of a plea of ‘not guilty’ as before a secular criminal court, but as a great ‘Confiteor’ — as a confession of their guilt before ‘God Almighty and you, brothers and sisters.’”
“In your commentary, you express an attitude that has led our Church exactly to where it currently finds itself: In an existential crisis with tendencies toward dissolution that can hardly be stopped.”
Noting that Kaschner will take part in October’s synod on synodality, Norpoth continued: “My dismay is all the greater because with such an attitude you will be part of the global synod this fall and — unlike the victims of sexualized violence, for example — will have a seat and vote there.”
“You will be involved in decisions that have a significant impact on the Catholic Church worldwide as well as in Germany. This further diminishes my hope of overcoming the abuse crisis and of a synodal Church that radiates justice, safety, and security.”
Kaschner was not the only critic of the text. In a letter to the Paderborn archdiocese’s magazine Der Dom, Sr. Katharina Mock argued that the panel contradicted Jesus’ words in St. John’s Gospel, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.”
“Is that the future of the Church, that human opinions, in line with the Zeitgeist, are given more weight than the joyful message of the Gospel?” asked Mock, the superior general of the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul of Paderborn.
But Claudia Auffenberg, Der Dom’s editor-in-chief, defended the text.
“On the one hand, we can leave the dead to God’s judgment. After all, it is our belief that everyone, including them, must justify themselves before their Creator,” she wrote in an op-ed published by katholisch.de, the German Church’s official news website.
“But on the other hand, we must — no — not just focus on those affected, but take their perspective. They have not been believed for years and decades, their lives have been massively disrupted, sometimes destroyed. We must not forget that.”
The crypt contains the relics of St. Liborius, the patron saint of the cathedral, archdiocese, and city of Paderborn. The crypt now features a wooden statue of the 4th-century saint created from a single tree trunk, accompanied by a brightly colored sculpture of a peacock, an animal associated with St. Liborius.