German Cardinal Woelki submits resignation to Pope Francis

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

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki has submitted his resignation to Pope Francis as leader of Germany’s Catholic archdiocese of Cologne.

The archdiocese announced the cardinal’s move on March 2, Ash Wednesday, the day that he returned to lead the archdiocese after a period of “prayer and reflection,” reported CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner.

The Cologne archdiocese, which is Germany's largest and reportedly also its richest diocese, said that the pope had instructed the 65-year-old cardinal to resume his ministry on Wednesday, pending a decision on his resignation.

Woelki began his sabbatical at the end of September 2021 “at his own request,” after he was confirmed in office by Pope Francis, who had ordered an apostolic visitation amid fierce criticism of the archdiocese’s handling of abuse cases.

In a Lenten pastoral letter published on Wednesday, Woelki said: “Certainly, I realize that the situation has not become any easier since October last year. A time-out in itself does not solve any problems.”

Any reconciliation could “only be contemplated, attempted and concretely undertaken in cooperation,” not by taking time out from each other, the cardinal added.

In January 2019, the Cologne archdiocese commissioned the law firm 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 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 2021. It covered the period from 1975 to 2018 and examined 236 files in detail with the aim of identifying failures and violations of the law, as well as those responsible for them.

Following the apostolic visitation, the Vatican said on Sept. 24, 2021, that the pope had asked the cardinal to continue leading the archdiocese in western Germany after a period of leave.

It explained that an investigation had found no evidence that Woelki acted unlawfully in relation to 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.”

The Holy See noted that the pope and Woelki had “a long conversation” in September 2021.

“The Holy Father is counting on Cardinal Woelki, acknowledging his loyalty to the Holy See and his concern for the unity of the Church,” it said.

“At the same time, it is obvious that the archbishop and the archdiocese need a time of pause, renewal, and reconciliation. This has prompted Pope Francis to grant Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, at his own request, a period of spiritual leave, beginning in mid-October until the start of Lent next year.”

Woelki is not the only German archbishop who has offered to resign.

More in Europe

Archbishop Stefan Heße of Hamburg offered to step down in March 2021, requesting an “immediate release” from all duties. Pope Francis declined his resignation last September.

The German prelate was in charge of pastoral personnel in the 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.

In June 2021, Pope Francis declined the resignation of another German Church leader, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising. Marx wrote to Pope Francis in May 2021, offering to resign amid the fallout from the clerical abuse crisis in Germany.

After the pope declined his resignation, Marx said that he wouldn’t rule out presenting his resignation for a second time.

Cologne archdiocese said on Wednesday: “Today, the cardinal would like to express his gratitude for the supportive prayers, the encouragement, and the many letters, emails, and postcards of support from within the Archdiocese of Cologne and from abroad.”

“The cardinal would also like to thank all those who have taken responsibility in the archdiocese in the past weeks and months,” it added.

This article was corrected on March 3 to clarify that Cardinal Woelki has submitted his resignation for the first time and not a second, as previously stated.

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