Canon lawyers to review abuse study contracts in Germany’s troubled Cologne archdiocese

Bishop Rolf Steinhäuser, apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Cologne, Germany Bishop Rolf Steinhäuser, apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Cologne, Germany. | Archdiocese of Cologne.

The apostolic administrator of Germany’s Cologne archdiocese has asked canon lawyers to review the contracts surrounding a landmark report on clerical abuse.

The archdiocese announced on Dec. 7 that Bishop Rolf Steinhäuser, who was named administrator in September, had commissioned two independent canon lawyers to study the contracts awarded by Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki and vicar general Msgr. Markus Hofmann.

The contracts relate to the 800-page Gercke Report, released in March. The study, known as the “Independent Investigation into the Handling of Sexualized Violence in the Archdiocese of Cologne,” covered the period from 1975 to 2018.

The archdiocese said that Steinhäuser called a meeting of the assets council and cathedral chapter at which he “provided information that when contracts were awarded in the context of the independent investigation into sexualized violence, both committees were not involved as required by Church law.”

Steinhäuser, a 69-year-old Cologne auxiliary bishop, said that he had informed the Vatican about the development.

Woelki is taking “a period of spiritual leave” after Pope Francis decided in September that he should continue leading the archdiocese in western Germany after a Vatican investigation into his handling of abuse cases.

“Until his return, Bishop Rolf Steinhäuser, as apostolic administrator sede plena [while the post remains filled, rather than vacant], will ensure the proper administration and, above all, that the archdiocese, for its part, finds itself in a spiritual process of reconciliation and renewal,” the Vatican said on Sept. 24.

Hofmann had asked Steinhäuser to permit him to take leave until questions about the contracts were resolved.

“The Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, has instructed the apostolic administrator to present the matter in its entirety in Rome and to refrain from putting Hofmann on a leave of absence,” the archdiocese said.

Hofmann has been acting as a delegate during Woelki’s absence, which is due to end at the start of Lent in 2022.

CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner, said that the independent abuse investigation cost Germany’s largest — and reportedly also its richest — diocese around 2.8 million euros ($3.2 million) between 2019 and 2021.

The archdiocese paid 757,500 euros ($857,000) for an initial report by the Munich law firm Westphal Spilker Wastl, which Woelki controversially declined to publish.

After lawyers advising the archdiocese raised concerns about “methodological deficiencies” in the study, Woelki commissioned Cologne-based criminal law expert Professor Björn Gercke to write a new report, costing 516,200 euros ($584,000).

In addition to the 1.3 million euros ($1.4 million) that the archdiocese spent on the reports, it paid an estimated 588,000 euros ($665,000) for “further legal advice,” as well as just under 820,000 euros ($928,000) on ”crisis consultations.”

According to reports, Hofmann said that with the Gercke Report, the archdiocese had “entered uncharted territory in legal terms as well as in terms of communication, and paid the price for it.”

“That was a painful and expensive process,” he was quoted as saying.

He added that the archdiocese needed external help to cope with a media onslaught after the first report was not published.

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The vicar general underlined that the costs would not be covered by the church tax. If an individual is registered as a Catholic in Germany, 8-9% of their income tax goes to the Church.

Hofmann said that the money would come instead from a special fund that was “in essence formed by levies from clerics from past decades.”

Compensation payments for abuse victims are paid from the same fund.

Pope Francis ordered an apostolic visitation of the archdiocese in May to examine possible errors in the handling of abuse cases by Woelki, as well as the Cologne auxiliaries Bishop Dominikus Schwaderlapp and Bishop Ansgar Puff.

The Vatican said in September that its investigation of Woelki had found no evidence that the 65-year-old cardinal acted unlawfully in relation to sexual abuse cases.

“Nevertheless, Cardinal Woelki has also made major mistakes in his approach to the issue of coming to terms with abuse overall, especially at the level of communication,” it said.

“This has contributed significantly to a crisis of confidence in the archdiocese that has disturbed many of the faithful.”

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Commenting on Schwaderlapp and Puff, the Holy See said: “In the case of both bishops, there are isolated deficiencies in the handling of procedures in their previous responsibilities, but not an intention to cover up abuse or ignore those affected.”

“Bishop Ansgar Puff will resume his regular ministry immediately. Bishop Dominikus Schwaderlapp has asked to be allowed to work for one year as a pastor in the Archdiocese of Mombasa, in Kenya, before returning to his ministry as auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Cologne. The Holy Father has granted this request.”

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