Pope Francis declines resignation of German Catholic archbishop

Screenshot 2020 11 23 at 084109 Archbishop Stefan Heße of Hamburg./ Raimond Spekking (CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

Pope Francis has declined the resignation of a German archbishop, the apostolic nunciature in Berlin announced on Wednesday.

The nunciature said on Sept. 15 that the pope had asked Archbishop Stefan Heße to remain as archbishop of Hamburg, northern Germany, following a Vatican investigation into his handling of abuse cases, reported CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner.

The nunciature explained that the probe had found organizational deficiencies and procedural errors by Heße, but “the investigation did not show that these were committed with the intention of covering up cases of sexual abuse.”

It said that “the basic problem” was a “lack of attention and sensitivity toward those affected by abuse” within Cologne archdiocese’s administrative apparatus.

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

The archbishop made a brief declaration live on YouTube, saying: “I am of the firm conviction that taking responsibility is part of our duty to actively deal with this dark chapter in the best possible way and to move towards a better future for everyone, first and foremost for the victims themselves.”

“I have never participated in any cover-up. Nevertheless, I am willing to bear my share of responsibility for the failure of the system,” Heße said.

Responding to the pope’s decision, the 55-year-old archbishop said on Sept. 15: “I thank the Holy Father for his clear decision and the trust he has placed in me.”

“The hiatus granted to me has come to an end and I am now, according to the will of the pope, expressly taking on responsibility again as archbishop in the north. In doing so, I am well aware that it will not necessarily be easy to resume my ministry. I will do everything in my power to meet this challenge.”

The German prelate was in charge of pastoral personnel in Cologne archdiocese from 2006 to 2012. He served as vicar-general from 2012 to 2015 before being ordained as archbishop of Hamburg on March 14, 2015.

A report on the handling of abuse cases published in March raised concerns about Heße’s actions regarding several cases during his time in Cologne.

The 800-page Gercke Report covered the period from 1975 to 2018 and examined 236 files in detail to identify failures and violations of the law, as well as those responsible for them.

Heße stood accused of having neglected his duty in nine separate cases on 11 counts, according to the report, CNA Deutsch said.

The archbishop wrote to the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops in November 2020 in connection with abuse cases that he reviewed while serving in Cologne archdiocese.

Heße said on Nov. 20: “Today I wrote to the prefect of the bishops’ congregation, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, and described the situation to him. I explained to him that I had always participated to the best of my knowledge and conscience in the processing of cases of sexual abuse in the archdiocese of Cologne and never in the cover-up of such cases.”

He continued: “The public debate about my time in Cologne, which has been going on for months, is not only a burden on me personally, but also on the Catholics in the archdiocese.”

“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.”

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“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.”

The day before his statement, Heße announced that he would be temporarily stepping aside as a spiritual adviser to the Central Committee of German Catholics, the influential lay body known by its German initials, ZdK.

In June, Pope Francis declined the resignation of another German Church leader, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising.

The 67-year-old cardinal wrote to Pope Francis in May, offering to resign amid the fallout from the clerical abuse crisis in Germany.

Marx is a member of the pope’s Council of Cardinals and the coordinator of the Vatican Council for the Economy. Until last year, he served as the chairman of the German bishops’ conference.

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