German cardinal takes further action in wake of independent abuse report

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

A German cardinal has announced further action following the release of a long-awaited independent report on the handling of abuse cases in his archdiocese.

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne told journalists on Tuesday that the 800-page Gercke Report, issued March 18, was just one stage in an ongoing process.

“I will do everything I possibly can to make the Church do better,” he said.

At the press conference, Fr. Markus Hofmann, vicar general of Cologne archdiocese, unveiled eight steps that the archdiocese would take following the report.

CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner, said that the steps included the creation of an independent inquiry into the handling of abuse cases in the archdiocese, which is Germany’s largest and reportedly also its richest diocese.

Woelki signed an agreement regarding the inquiry with Johannes-Wilhelm Rörig, the federal government’s Independent Commissioner for Dealing with Sexual Abuse of Minors.

Other steps include funding increased compensation to victims, regular monitoring of Church workers charged with offenses, and improved record-keeping through digitalization.

The archdiocese will also change its approach to priestly formation, with psychological assessments, a preparatory year that includes work on social projects, and greater involvement of women in the formation process.

Woeki, the archbishop of Cologne since 2014, 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 was sharply criticized by clerics and Catholic associations for his handling of abuse reports and cover-up allegations.

In December 2018, 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 asked Cologne-based criminal law expert Professor Björn Gercke to write a new report.

The Gercke Report, formally known as the “Independent Investigation into the Handling of Sexualized Violence in the Archdiocese of Cologne,” covered the period from 1975 to 2018, examining 236 files in detail to identify failures and violations of the law, as well as those responsible for them.

Following the report’s publication, Woelki announced that 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.

Speaking at the press conference on March 23, Woelki said it was necessary to introduce a canonical reform eliminating contradictions between the guidelines of the German bishops’ conference and canon law, and to change a canonical practice which means that abuse cases are sometimes viewed in Church law principally as a breach of the vow of celibacy.

He also announced that management staff would be given further training, especially in the handling of sexualized violence. An information reporting system recommended by Gercke will also be set up. This system will allow anyone who wants to provide information to do so anonymously.

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Woelki stressed that “the victims’ perspective must guide our actions.”

He added that he was available to meet victims in person and invited them to contact him.

Asked by reporters if he intended to resign, Woelki said: “To simply accept moral responsibility and go -- to protect the standing of the episcopate and the Church -- would be too easy and is, in my view, wrong.”

“I will accept and assume moral responsibility. Now and in the future, I will do everything within my power to prevent such mistakes from happening again.”

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