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Catholic Church investigates claims against late cardinal

September 20, 2023

German Cardinal Franz Hengsbach is accused of having sexually abused three individuals in the 1950s and 60s. Victims groups want to know if Pope Benedict was involved in quashing an investigation a decade ago.

A thin-faced man, Cardinal Franz Hengsbach, holds a crozier and looks stern
Franz Hengsbach and his brother Paul are accused of sexually abusing a minor in the 1950sImage: Fritz Fischer/dpa/picture alliance

The German Dioceses of Essen and Paderborn have separately announced an investigation into sexual abuse allegations brought against Cardinal Franz Hengsbach (1910-1991) in 2011 and 2022.

Hengsbach is accused of having sexually assaulted three individuals, at least two of whom were young women, one a minor, throughout his career.

The first of these alleges that he abused a 16-year-old girl in 1954 while he was an auxiliary bishop in the city of Paderborn. The alleged victim originally came forth with the accusations in 2011, 10 years after Hengsbach's death.

The accuser leveled abuse allegations at Hengsbach's brother Paul, too. Also a priest, Paul Hengsbach vehemently denied the accusations until his death in 2018.

Church investigators original conclusion 'clearly questionable'

At the time, the case was first reviewed by the General Vicariate of Paderborn then sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican in Rome. Both dismissed the accusations as "implausible," refusing to compensate the accuser.

Officials in Paderborn, however, say that in revisiting the case they have found the original assessment "clearly questionable."

Sexual Abuse: Benedict under pressure

Diocese of Essen: Sexual abuse accusations 'serious'

A second case stems from Hengsbach's time in Essen, the diocese he founded in 1958 and led until his death in 1991.

The crime was reported to have taken place in 1967 while Hengsbach was a bishop.

Both dioceses have invited anyone else who was a victim to come forth as the investigation gets underway.

The Diocese of Essen called the accusations "serious."

Essen's current bishop, Franz-Josef Overbeck, said as the news broke on Tuesday that he had first heard about the accusations this March. He pledged transparency. However, it emerged the next day that Overbeck had been informed of allegations against Hengsbach in 2010, a year before he would unveil a new statue of his predecessor.

Johannes Norpoth, spokesman for the victims' advisory council of the German Bishops' Conference, welcomed the news of an investigation.

Speaking with Germany's Catholic News Agency (KNA), Norpoth said there was no reason to doubt the accuser's account and praised the courage required to take on such a "legendary figure in the industrial Ruhr region" of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Norpoth accused both Essen and Paderborn of having been irresponsible when dealing with accusations about Hengsbach in 2010 and 2011, saying neither diocese "took the accusations seriously."

Should the allegations prove true, Hengsbach, who was appointed cardinal in 1988, would become the first high-ranking cleric in Germany found guilty of sexual assault.

The victims' advocacy group Eckiger Tisch has called for an independent commission to look into the original investigations, including who led them, why they were dropped and if Cardinal Josef Ratzinger — who, after leading the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would later become Pope Benedict XVI (2005-2013) — had anything to do with the case being quashed.

"There must finally be an end to the Church, or bodies commissioned by it, attempting to resolve and handle abuse cases on their own," the group exclaimed.

The Diocese of Paderborn on Tuesday said its reassessment of the case had led it to conclude that the accusations leveled against Hengsbach were in fact plausible.

The Catholic Church in Crisis

js/jsi (dpa, KNA)

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