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Pope orders inquiry into German church sex abuse scandal

May 28, 2021

Pope Francis wants to determine whether Cologne Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki made errors in handling allegations of sexual misconduct. Cologne is Germany's largest diocese.

Cologne Cathedral
Cologne is, by some measures the world's richest diocese — with a bigger income than the VaticanImage: Eesha Kheny

Pope Francis on Friday dispatched two envoys to the Catholic Church in Cologne to review whether the diocese made errors in handling allegations of sexual abuse. Cologne Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki has welcomed the decision. 

What did the Holy See say about the inquiry?

"Pope Francis has ordered an Apostolic Visitation to the Archdiocese of Cologne," Papal Nuncio to Germany Nikola Eterovic said in a statement regarding the review.

"The Holy See's delegates will form a comprehensive picture of the complex pastoral situation in the Archbishopric and consider any possible failings by Cardinal Woelki and his excellency Stefan Hesse, the archbishop of Hamburg," he continued. Hesse was the former head of personnel in Cologne.

The two inspectors heading to Cologne next month include Bishop of Stockholm Anders Cardinal Arborelius and Bishop of Rotterdam Johannes van der Hende.

Woelki said in a statement that he is "glad the Pope wants to form his own picture of our own independent inquiry and its consequences." He said he "will support" the envoys in their work.

What is the background of the scandal?

An investigation found over 300 cases of abuse at the church of children mostly under the age of 14 between 1975 and 2018. Over 200 abusers were involved in harming the children.

A March report into the church's handling of sexual abuse allegations found 75 instances where church officials neglected their obligations to deal with cases of abuse.

Woelki has been criticized for not releasing a report that detailed earlier sexual abuse claims towards priests at the diocese. He claims unspecified methodological shortcomings prevent the report from being released.

Too white and too Eurocentric?

The scandal has caused thousands of church members to leave Germany's largest diocese. The Cologne Catholic Church is also the world's richest diocese by some measures, bringing in more income than the Vatican.

wd/rt (AP, Reuters, dpa)