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Cologne cardinal stays, despite sex abuse cover-up

September 24, 2021

The pope has said Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki should remain as Cologne’s archbishop, but accused him of big mistakes. The senior cleric was accused of protecting priests suspected of sexual abuse.

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki
Woelki is to take a sabbatical for several months, but will retain his postImage: Peter Back/Geisler-Fotopress/picture alliance

Pope Francis on Friday accused the archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, of "grave errors" but stopped short of removing him from his post.

Instead, the senior priest — who heads Germany's largest archdiocese — will take a sabbatical at his own request.

Pope grants 'spiritual time-out'

The decision came after talks between Pope Francis and Woelki on a child sexual abuse crisis that has rocked the church in Germany.

The Vatican said it was clear that Woelki needed "time to reflect, to renew and to reconcile." 

"This has led Pope Francis to accommodate Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki's wish for a spiritual time-out," the Holy See said in a statement.

An administrator is to be appointed while Woelki is away, from mid-October to the beginning of March.

A carnival float depicting a sleeping cardinal
A carnival float depicting a sleeping cardinal, in response to allegations of the cover-up earlier this yearImage: Martin Meissner/AP Photo/picture alliance

Papal investigation launched

In May, the pope sent two envoys to look at possible mistakes committed by Woelki, who was criticized for his handling of the historic sexual abuse allegations.

There was particular criticism for his decision not to publish a report into wrongdoing

Woelki said he disagreed with the way it was carried out and cited legal concerns about the document, subsequently commissioning a separate external report.

He was accused of trying to protect the priests involved.

The second document, released in March this year, showed 314 people — mainly boys under the age of 14 — were abused by clergy in the Cologne diocese between 1975 and 2018.

Woelki himself was cleared of wrongdoing by the report and has repeatedly rejected calls for his resignation.

Wider allegations against church

Revelations about past sexual abuse have dogged the Catholic Church in Germany for years

High-ranking members of the organization were accused of failing to follow up on or report cases of abuse, not sanctioning perpetrators, or not caring for victims.

Earlier this month, Pope Francis rejected the resignation of Hamburg's archbishop Stefan Hesse. Hesse had offered to step down in March after he was accused of mishandling sexual abuse allegations in the second report commissioned by Woelki.

Hesse in particular was faulted for 11 cases of neglecting his duty. He conceded that he had made "mistakes'' in the past, but denied actively aiding efforts to shield abusers.

Following the report's findings, Francis granted Hesse a "time out'' of unspecified length.

rc/rt (dpa, Reuters, AP)

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