Pope Francis orders apostolic visitation of Cardinal Woelki’s Cologne archdiocese

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki  Photo  Jochen Rolfes  Archdiocese of Cologne Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki. | Jochen Rolfes/Archdiocese of Cologne.

Pope Francis has ordered an apostolic visitation of Germany’s Cologne archdiocese amid fierce criticism of its handling of abuse cases.

The archdiocese said in a May 28 statement that the pope’s apostolic visitors would evaluate “possible mistakes” made by its leader, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki.

The apostolic visitors will be Cardinal Anders Arborelius of Stockholm and Bishop Johannes van den Hende of Rotterdam, president of the Dutch bishops’ conference, reported CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner.

“During the first half of June, the Holy See’s envoys will visit the archdiocese to get a comprehensive picture of the complex pastoral situation in the archdiocese,” the statement said.

It added that the visitors would also examine possible errors committed by Archbishop Stefan Heße of Hamburg, who was Cologne archdiocese’s vicar general from 2012 to 2015, and the Cologne auxiliaries Bishop Dominikus Schwaderlapp and Bishop Ansgar Puff.

Heße said in March that he was offering his resignation to Pope Francis and requesting “immediate release” from all duties.

Welcoming the apostolic visitation, Woelki said: “Already in February I informed the Holy Father in Rome comprehensively about the situation in our archdiocese.”

“I welcome the fact that with the apostolic visitation the pope wants to get his own picture of the independent investigation and the consequences of it.”

“I will support Cardinal Arborelius and Bishop van den Hende in their work with full conviction. I welcome every measure that will help to ensure accountability.”

The 64-year-old cardinal announced in December 2020 that he had asked Pope Francis to review the decisions he took regarding an accused priest -- identified only as “Pastor O.” -- in 2015.

Woeki, who was appointed archbishop of Cologne in 2014, has faced calls to resign since the archdiocese controversially declined to publish a report by the Munich law firm Westphal Spilker Wastl.

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.

The 800-page Gercke Report was published in March. It 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.

Responding to the report, Woelki announced that he would “temporarily release” two officials from their duties: Bishop Schwaderlapp and Günter Assenmacher, an archdiocesan official.

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.

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“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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