Vatican backs Cardinal Woelki over abuse study contracts

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne. | Archdiocese of Cologne/Reiner Diart.

The Vatican has ruled that the German Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki did not breach canon law when awarding contracts connected to a landmark report on clerical abuse.

The Archdiocese of Cologne announced the Vatican’s decision on May 3, reported CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner.

During a seven-month “period of spiritual leave” taken by the cardinal, the apostolic administrator of the archdiocese commissioned two independent canon lawyers to study the contracts awarded by Woelki and vicar general Msgr. Markus Hofmann.

The contracts related to the 800-page Gercke Report, released in March 2021. 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.

Bishop Rolf Steinhäuser, the Cologne auxiliary who served as apostolic administrator, called a meeting of the archdiocesan 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.”

The archdiocese announced on Tuesday that Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, said in a letter to Woelki that the Vatican had concluded “after thorough examination” that no further committee involvement was necessary.

“Neither you, Eminence, nor your vicar general violated canon law in the matter of funding the two expert reports on the handling of sexual abuse cases in the Archdiocese of Cologne and in the funding of consulting by the communications agency commissioned by the archdiocese,” Ouellet wrote, according to the archdiocese.

Ouellet reportedly added that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy had also studied the matter and its prefect, Archbishop Lazarus You Heung-sik, concluded: “Ecclesiastical law was not violated. Since there is consequently no offense, there is also no reason for canonical measures.”

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, the cardinal 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.”

The Vatican ordered an apostolic visitation of the archdiocese in May 2021 to examine possible errors in the handling of abuse cases by Woelki.

Pope Francis ruled in September 2021 that Woelki should remain in charge of the archdiocese after the Vatican found no evidence that the cardinal had acted unlawfully.

“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,” the Vatican said.

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

The pope granted Woelki a period of leave beginning in mid-October and ending at the start of Lent.

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The archdiocese said in March this year that Woelki had submitted his resignation as archbishop to Pope Francis. It announced the 65-year-old’s step on Ash Wednesday, the day he returned to lead the archdiocese.

On Tuesday, Woelki welcomed what he described as the “good news from Rome.”

“Perhaps this news — at least I hope — also contributes a little to calming our archdiocese,” he said. “But the case shows me that we must continue on the path to further transparency and compliance.”

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