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Confidentiality dispute piles pressure on cardinal accused of mishandling abuse cases

CardinalRainerMariaWoelkiIcon.png Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne. Credit: www.ewtn.de.

German media have criticized the Archdiocese of Cologne for offering to provide a “background briefing” to journalists about an unpublished report into clerical sex abuse on condition that they signed a confidentiality form. 

Journalists from several media organizations reported that they had refused to sign the form and walked out of the meeting on Jan. 5, which was called to explain issues regarding the report’s methodology. 

The archdiocese claimed that the non-disclosure requirement sought to protect the identities of the people referred to in the report. But journalists balked at the suggestion, with one national newspaper citing “a deep-seated distrust” in the wake of recent developments between the diocese and media.

The form would have required journalists not to mention any sexual abuse described in the report, any named perpetrators or people responsible for handling allegations of abuse, as well as any recommendations by the independent report’s authors.

Cologne archdiocese had initially commissioned the Munich law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl to lead an independent investigation into the handling of sex abuse cases. But it decided not to publish the firm’s report, citing what it called “serious methodological deficiencies.” 

The decision was widely criticized by journalists and has led to sustained negative media coverage.

A second independent investigation is currently underway in the archdiocese. It is expected to publish its results on March 18. 

Pressure is mounting after a Cologne newspaper reported on Jan. 5 that the public broadcaster WDR would broadcast an Epiphany Mass with Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki from Cologne Cathedral on Wednesday “despite considerable concerns about the unresolved cover-up allegations” against the cardinal. 

The state-funded broadcaster reportedly raised the public’s concerns about the cardinal’s handling of sexual abuse. The paper stressed that this had been “frankly discussed” with the archdiocese.

Woelki announced on Dec. 11 that he would seek the pope’s verdict on the decisions he made regarding an accused priest in 2015.

“In order to clarify the canonical accusations made against me, I ask the Holy Father to examine this question,” he said in a statement on the website of Cologne archdiocese.

“The fact remains: failures in dealing with sexualized violence must be disclosed, regardless of who they were raised against. This includes me too.”

Cologne archdiocese, which is Germany’s largest and reportedly also its richest diocese, said that the cardinal was referring to the case of a priest identified only as “Pastor O.”

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Allegations against Pastor O. were brought to Woelki’s attention in 2015. But Woelki, who was installed as archbishop of Cologne in 2014, decided not to open a preliminary canonical investigation and report the case to the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. 

The archdiocese said that because there were no witnesses to the alleged incident, it was “absolutely necessary” for Woelki to personally address the allegation to the priest. 

But Pastor O. had suffered from strokes and had advanced dementia and was therefore unable to respond to the claim.

CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner, cited an article in the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, a regional newspaper, claiming that Bishop Felix Genn of Münster was considering opening “canonical investigations” against Woelki. 

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As the longest-serving bishop in the ecclesiastical province of Cologne, Genn could potentially trigger an investigation under Vos estis lux mundi, Pope Francis’ 2019 motu proprio seeking to hold bishops accountable for mishandling abuse cases.

Woelki is the second German Church leader in recent months to ask Rome to review his handling of abuse allegations. 

Archbishop Stefan Heße of Hamburg wrote to the Congregation for Bishops on Nov. 20 in connection with abuse cases that he reviewed while serving in the Archdiocese of Cologne. 

Heße was vicar general of Cologne archdiocese from 2012 until he was appointed archbishop of Hamburg in 2015.

“Out of concern for the Archdiocese of Hamburg, I therefore consider it my duty to inform the Roman authorities both of the current situation and of the investigation results from Cologne, which will be available in March,” he said.

“To me, it is self-evident that I cannot be a judge in my own case, but that I ask the authority that appointed me to my office as archbishop for a review.”

In a Dec. 10 statement, Woelki said: “The mandate of the independent investigation is clear: regardless of person or office, all processes in dealing with sexual violence of the past decades are clarified. The investigation therefore leaves no one out, including me.”

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He continued: “As archbishop, I will also take moral responsibility for suffering caused by those in charge in the archdiocese, but doing so on an incomplete basis would not do the cause justice. Should I have made mistakes in a specific case, these will be clearly stated and I will act accordingly.”