Donate to RNS

Pope keeps German archbishop criticized over abuse scandal

A report found 75 cases in which eight high-ranking officials neglected their duties to either follow up on, report or sanction cases of alleged abuse by clergy and lay officials.

In this Sept.20, 2021 file photo Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki, Archbishop of Cologne, sits in his seat at the beginning of the Autumn Plenary Assembly of the German Bishops' Conference in Fulda, Germany. (Sebastian Gollnow/dpa via AP, File)

BERLIN (AP) — Pope Francis has decided to leave in office a prominent German archbishop who has faced criticism for his handling of the church’s sexual abuse scandal, but the cleric has decided to take a several-month time out, his archdiocese said Friday.

The Vatican said that the pope “is counting on” the archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, the archdiocese said in a statement. However, it added that Woelki asked for a “spiritual time out” from mid-October to the beginning of March, and that the pontiff granted it. The aim is “to be able to think and to open space for confidence to grow again,” the statement added.

Woelki has become a deeply divisive figure in the German church.

A report commissioned by the archbishop and issued in March found 75 cases in which eight high-ranking officials — including Woelki’s late predecessor — neglected their duties to either follow up on, report or sanction cases of alleged abuse by clergy and lay church employees, and failed to take care of the victims.

Hamburg Archbishop Stefan Hesse, previously a senior church official in Cologne, was faulted for 11 cases of neglecting his duty. Hesse offered his resignation to Francis, who eventually rejected it last week.

The report absolved Woelki himself of any neglect of his legal duty with respect to abuse victims. He subsequently said he made mistakes in past cases involving sexual abuse allegations, but made clear he had no intention of resigning.

Woelki infuriated many local Catholics by citing legal concerns to keep under wraps a first report on how local church officials reacted when priests were accused of sexual abuse. He commissioned the new report — an 800-page investigation based on church files and put together by a German law firm.

A pair of papal envoys were dispatched to Cologne in June to investigate possible mistakes by senior church officials in handling past sexual abuse cases and the “complex pastoral situation” in the church there.

During Woelki’s absence, auxiliary bishop Rolf Steinhaeuser will run the archdiocese as an “apostolic administrator.”