Pope Francis sending team to investigate whether German diocese mishandled sexual abuse allegations, amid public anger

Pope Francis will dispatch a team to investigate if the Archbishop of Cologne mishandled sexual abuse claims in the Catholic Church. Parishioners have been protesting against the diocese and demanding accountability.

Investigators from the Vatican will visit the Archdiocese of Cologne, Germany in the first half of June to check whether its leader, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, had made “mistakes” in the addressing of the sexual abuse cases, the archdiocese said in a statement on Friday. They will also look at possible failings by Stefan Hesse, the archbishop of Hamburg, who was the former head of personnel in Cologne.

Woelki has been slammed by parishioners for not releasing a report detailing abuse allegations and failing to inform the Vatican about a particular case involving a priest. The cardinal himself had requested an investigation last year and had promised to support the probe. He said he welcomed the fact the Pope wanted “to get his own picture” of the affairs in the archdiocese.

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On Thursday, around 60 people protested Woelki’s visit to the city of Dusseldorf. They were holding up red cards when he arrived at the Church of St. Mary of Peace. Roughly 140 parishioners had signed a letter against the cardinal performing confirmations at the church and had asked him to send a representative instead. 

Woelki said during the trip that he understood the concerns of the public and it was “important for me to hear them.”

In 2010, a victim told the archdiocese of Cologne that a Dusseldorf priest, who was later identified by the media as Pastor O., sexually abused him in the late 1970s, when he was a child. The victim was subsequently compensated €15,000 ($18,210) by the Church.

Woelki, who worked with Pastor O. when he himself was a deacon, told local media he had declined to formally investigate the case because it had proved impossible to question the pastor due to his dementia. Pastor O. died in 2017.

In January 2019, the archdiocese commissioned a Munich-based law firm to examine Church files from 1975 onward in order to determine what had led to the cover-up of the incidents of sexual abuse over the years. However, Woelki decided not to publish the report, citing “methodological deficiencies” in the firm’s work, according to the Catholic News Agency.

Woelki then commissioned a new independent study, which was published in March 2021.

The report identified 243 priests and lay people working for the Church who abused minors, and at least 386 victims between 1946 and 2018. In 55% of cases, the victims were children under the age of 14. Half of the cases overall dealt with sexual violence, while the rest related to verbal or physical abuse.

The two officials commissioned by the Pope to assess the situation in Cologne, the center of Germany’s largest and most powerful Roman Catholic diocese, are Anders Arborelius, the Bishop of Stockholm, and Johannes van den Hende, the Bishop of Rotterdam.

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