German Catholics bewildered over Woelki decision

Archbishop Jerome Lloyd OSJVPosted by

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, Archbishop of Cologne, makes a statement in the garden of the Archbishop’s House.

German Catholics bewildered over Woelki decision

Pope Francis has confirmed Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki in office as Cardinal Archbishop of Cologne, and granted him several months to reflect on the events that led him to offer the Pope his resignation. The cardinal was accused of protecting priests accused of sexual abuse.

The reaction of German conference president, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, to the news was cautious. “I accept the Holy Father’s decision and hope that the process of reconciliation in the Cologne archdiocese will now begin. I cannot judge whether this can lead to a fundamentally changed situation,” Bätzing declared in Bonn on 24 September. Rome was obviously trying “to get things moving with regard to regaining trust in episcopal leadership which has been seriously damaged far beyond Cologne and is spreading right through the Church”, he pointed out.

The Pope’s decision to grant Woelki a period of leave had reminded him, Bätzing said, of a similar decision by Francis in the case of his predecessor in Limburg, Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, nicknamed the Bishop of Bling for his extravagance, whom Francis had also granted leave of absence in 2013.

Woelki was upbeat following the announcement. “I had a long talk with the Holy Father and he made quite clear how much he counted on me. He particularly highlighted the decisiveness and determination with which we in Cologne had tried to clear up the clerical sexual abuse in our archdiocese,” Woelki told journalists on his return from a week in Rome. He admitted that he had made mistakes – “especially as far as communication is concerned” – and once again apologised profoundly to the victims.

He was deeply grateful to Pope Francis for granting him his wish to take several months off from mid-October. “I will be back in office in the spring and we can then work together full force for the future of our Church in Cologne,” he underlined.  

The reaction to the Pope’s decision in the wider Church was hostile. He could not understand the Vatican decision, the president of the Central Committee of (lay) Catholics (ZdK), Thomas Sternberg said. There must be a guarantee that talks would be held with the faithful and the victims during Woelki’s “time out”. “A period of leave just isn’t enough and won’t solve the crisis as it won’t regain the loss of trust”, he emphasised. 

The Pope’s decision to leave Woelki in office was a “declaration of moral bankruptcy”, Thomas Schüller of Münster University, one of Germany’s top theologians, told the German broadcaster WDR. Francis kept insisting that there would be zero tolerance for the perpetrators and those who hushed up clerical sexual abuse but when things got serious “the powers that be get soft and the bishops remain in office and get time-out, which is a slap in the face for the victims”.

The well-known German journalist Daniel Deckers commenting in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung went further, directly criticising the Pope.

“It looks as if trust in episcopal leadership has been irretrievably lost – far beyond Hamburg and Cologne and now includes trust in the integrity of the Bishop of Rome,” Deckers said.

Conference vice-president Bishop Franz-Josef Bode said the increase in the number of Catholics leaving the Church in Germany is “exceedingly worrying”. Committed Catholics “in the best age group” were leaving and he feared that this would have a “suction effect” and they would take others with them. “No one wants to be on a sinking ship”, he pointed out. The many talks he had held with victims of clerical sexual abuse in recent years had at times almost made him lose his faith, he admitted.

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