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Report finds Freiburg's ex-archbishop covered up sex abuse

April 18, 2023

Catholic former Archbishop Robert Zollitsch is accused of covering up sexual abuse cases in an independent report commissioned by the Freiburg archdiocese. The 84-year-old also once led the German Bishops' Conference.

Freiburg's former Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, pictured in 2022.
Robert Zollitsch recently issued an apology and admitted past mistakes around sexual abuse casesImage: Winfried Rothermel/IMAGO

A report on the past handling of sexual abuse cases in one of Germany's larger Catholic archdioceses, Freiburg, found that the city's former archbishop did almost everything in his power to conceal perpetrators over a period of roughly 30 years in total. 

The independent report, one of several comparable outside investigations commissioned by Catholic Churches in Germany of late, was critical of Robert Zollitsch's handling of abuse in the church both as archbishop and during his 20 preceding years as a close associate of his predecessor, Alexander Saier. 

Eugen Endress, a judge and one of the authors of the report, told a press conference on Tuesday that Zollitsch would often completely ignore church law when confronted with cases. He described the problem as "about covering up by leading personnel." 

The report said Zollitsch would neither launch preliminary investigations of allegations, as Vatican guidelines recommended, and that in his entire period in office he never reported a single case to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Catholic body that can prosecute the clergy.

"Nothing would happen, everything would carry on as normal," Endress said.

Endress gave one example of a priest facing referral and punishment for violation of his vow of celibacy while others accused of abuse of children did not. "We were speechless," he said.

Current archbishop calls for Vatican investgiation

Zollitsch's successor as Freiburg archbishop, Stephan Burger, said on Tuesday that he was left "stunned that both his predecessors could have acted this way despite knowing better."

Burger also asked forgiveness for his own failings, although he fared rather better in the 582-page report, and said he had called for the Vatican's authorities to look into the allegations against Zollitsch.  

Zollitsch was Freiburg's archbishop from 2003 to 2013, he was also head of the German Bishops' Conference from 2008 to 2014, around the same time that his countryman Joseph Ratzinger was Pope Benedict XVI.

Archive image from 2003 shows then Archbishop of Freiburg Alexander Saier putting a miter on the head of a kneeling Robert Zollitsch, in a church ceremony where Zollitsch took over the role from Saier.
Zollitsch (left in picture) also had a pivotal role handling abuse cases when working under previous Archbishop Alexander Saier (right in picture) from 1983 to 2003Image: Rolf Haid/dpa/picture-alliance

What were the report's findings? 

The report detailed how Zollitsch might try to move a priest facing allegations to a new, faraway parish, or to try to persuade them to take early retirement if they were of advancing years. Or he might make do with a warning or "pastoral measures" or "therapeutic models" in cases of serious allegations that would usually demand referral to Rome and a church investigation.

It also accused Zollitsch of knowingly understating the extent of the problem in public, publishing old sex abuse figures for the diocese that he knew to be out of date while simultaneously complaining that some of those cases were not proven. 

The Church had asked investigators to focus on questions of accountability and how or whether Church power structures were implicit in any cover-up efforts using the existing paperwork, rather than to seek new victims, evidence or cases.

Report author Endress also said that during Zollitsch's predecessor Alexander Saier's 20-year tenure as archbishop, Zollitsch had unofficially taken responsiblity for such issues, even though it still formally lay with the archbishop. He portrayed Saier as preferring to know nothing of the problem, saying that Saier had a famous motto, "you deal with it, Robert."

Catholic Church and reform

In total, across the four different archbishops and 65 years studied, the chairman of the investigative committee Magnus Striet said more than 250 priests and church employees like deacons were implicated, and that roughly 540 children and young victims had been identified. But Striet cautioned these were only the reported cases and the real figures were likely far higher. 

"Many people have waited a long time for this day," Striet said when introducing the report on Tuesday, he thanked the authors for their "dogged and meticulous" work. 

Video apology late last year

Zollitsch, now 84, recently moved from Freiburg to a care home to the north in Mannheim.

In October he issued a video apology for past mistakes without offering specifics: "With my behavior and actions at the time I made serious mistakes and failed to recognize the dangers, including of repeat abuse. I regret that with all my heart. I'm genuinely sorry," he said. 

He also issued a statement before the report's publication via his lawyers saying he would not be commenting, "out of consideration for those affected by sexualized violence and out of respect for a necessary and complete accounting," according to local newspaper the Badische Zeitung.  

The southwestern German city of Freiburg near the border with France is one of Germany's largest Catholic communities.

The Catholic Church in Crisis

msh/jcg (dpa, KNA) 

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