German cardinal facing calls to resign welcomes release of independent abuse report

woelki_portrait_1.jpeg Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki. Credit: Jochen Rolfes/Archdiocese of Cologne.

A German cardinal facing calls to resign on Thursday welcomed the release of a long-awaited report on the handling of abuse cases in his archdiocese.

In an interview with CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne said that the publication of the independent report on March 18 “established clarity about the past.”

“At the same time, I am saddened and affected by what we have heard about the misconduct that has been identified,” he said.

Woeki, the archbishop of Cologne since 2014, has faced calls to resign after the archdiocese controversially declined to publish another report, by the Munich law firm Westphal Spilker Wastl.

The 64-year-old cardinal has also been sharply criticized by clerics and Catholic associations for his handling of abuse reports and cover-up allegations.

In January 2019, the archdiocese commissioned Westpfahl Spilker Wastl to examine relevant personnel files from 1975 onwards to determine “which personal, systemic or structural deficits were responsible in the past for incidents of sexual abuse being covered up or not being punished consistently.”

After lawyers advising the archdiocese raised concerns about “methodological deficiencies” in the law firm’s study, Woelki commissioned Cologne-based criminal law expert Professor Björn Gercke to write a new report.

Woelki also asked Pope Francis in December 2020 to review the decisions he took regarding an accused priest -- identified only as “Pastor O.” -- in 2015.

The 800-page Gercke Report was presented in Cologne, western Germany, on Thursday.

The report, known as the “Independent Investigation into the Handling of Sexualized Violence in the Archdiocese of Cologne,” covers the period from 1975 to 2018 and examines 236 files in detail with the aim of identifying failures and violations of the law, as well as those responsible for them.

Woelki told CNA Deutsch that he had not seen the study before its publication.

He said: “First of all, I will read all of the 800 pages in the report. In the next few days, I will then have many discussions with my staff and, of course, with those in positions of responsibility, with a view to then announcing any personnel and organizational changes on March 23.”

“The Gercke Report is not the conclusion of our work, but rather the starting point for further reviews.”

Unveiling the report, Gercke said: “We have encountered a system featuring a lack of responsibility, lack of legal clarity, lack of control, and lack of transparency, which in any case favored secrecy and in which many parties were involved, including those outside the Archdiocese of Cologne.”

“Accordingly, one should not speak of a ‘systematic cover-up’ by responsible persons of the Archdiocese of Cologne, but of a ‘system-related or system-inherent cover-up.’”

Woelki announced that, as a first step, he would “temporarily release” two officials from their duties: Bishop Dominikus Schwaderlapp, a Cologne auxiliary bishop and former vicar general, and Günter Assenmacher, an archdiocesan official.

Gercke’s report identified concerns about both men’s handling of abuse cases and they will remain suspended until the allegations have been clarified.

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The archdiocese will hold a second press conference on March 23 at which Woelki will comment in more detail on his reaction to the report, with possible further consequences for officials criticized in the report.

Woelki told CNA Deutsch that he understood the anger over the archdiocese’s response to abuse cases and its decision not to publish the first report.

“I am heartily sorry that we have caused further pain to those affected by the difficult path of coming to terms with sexualized violence in the Archdiocese of Cologne,” he said.

“Unfortunately, we had no alternative to the decision to commission a second expert opinion, because we need a methodologically clean and sustainable basis in order to clearly identify the responsibilities organizationally in our church and to be able to prevent the same mistakes being made in the future.”

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