The cleric said he wanted to tell parishioners about the biblically important meaning of forgiveness. He regretted that predator priests were labelled "criminals" but many of his congregation walked out of the church.
Retired priest Ulrich Zurkuhlen caused consternation in the city of Münster, northwest Germany, when he dedicated his sermon to the concept of forgiving priests who had sexually abused minors.
Zurkuhlen's remarks come at a difficult time for the Roman Catholic Church, as it grapples with continued allegations, from various parts of the world, of priests' predatory conduct and church attempts to cover it up.
In 2018, the German Bishops' Conference published a report revealing that 1,670 priests, roughly 4.4% of clerics, had abused 3,677 people between 1946 and 2014 in Germany.
The controversial sermon took place in the Holy Spirit Church of Münster. The internet portal Kirche-und-Leben.de (Church and Life) reported that parishioners were incensed, with some 70 members of the congregation walking out in protest.
Several parishioners reportedly interrupted the 79-year-old Zurkuhlen and tried to argue with him. A worshipper told Kirche-und-Leben that the situation became chaotic and the priest was not able to finish the sermon.
Victims of abuse were said to have been present as the priest spoke.
'A real shock'
In an interview with Kirche-und-Leben.de, Zurkuhlen griped about the fact that even bishops refer to predator priests as "criminals," despite the fact that these men were also good clerics in their communities.
"Nobody is just profoundly evil," the priest said. "Goodness and guilt are often combined with each other or stand side by side without touching," he added.
Zurkuhlen insisted that it was "time for the church hierarchy to say a word of forgiveness after a long time."
When asked about the reaction his sermon caused among worshippers, Zurkuhlen said that it was "a real shock." He lamented that he was unable to get his point across, especially the biblically important meaning of forgiveness, to what he called "the screaming mob."
A spokesman for the diocese of Muenster told DPA that the organization believed the focus should be on "the victims and not the perpetrators," when it comes to the delicate matter of sexual abuse cases.
Stefan Rau, a fellow priest of the Holy Spirit Church, regretted Zurkuhlen's position. "I always try to give my colleagues in the pastoral team encouragement," he told Kirche-und-Leben.de.
"But this was not possible this time," he conceded.
"There has already been a conversation with the priest concerned and the entire pastoral team, and there will be another conversation," Rua said, ruling out disciplinary action against Zurkuhlen at this time.
But the incident did prompt the parish to invite worshippers to a conversation about the sermon, which will take place next Monday.