Pope Francis has ordered an apostolic visitation of the Archdiocese of Cologne. It will be undertaken by the Bishop of Stockholm, Cardinal Anders Aborelius OCD and the Bishop of Rotterdam and president of the Dutch bishops’ conference, Johannes van den Hende.
According to a press release from the nuncio’s office in Berlin of 28 May, in the first half of June, the two visitators will undertake a comprehensive investigation of the complex pastoral situation in the Cologne archdiocese and sound out whether the Archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, along with the former head of personnel in Cologne, now Archbishop of Hamburg, Stefan Hesse, and the auxiliary bishops of Cologne, Dominik Schwaderlapp and Ansgar Puff, have been at fault in the way they handled cases of priestly sexual abuse.
The archdiocese of Cologne has been in turmoil for more than a year over the way cases of priestly sexual abuse were handled and who was responsible for protecting perpetrators and hushing up criminal deeds.
Woelki refused to publish the first report he commissioned to investigate how abuse cases were handled. A second report, again commissioned by Woelki, and published in March this year, raised concerns on the way Hesse, Schwaderlapp and Puff had handled abuse cases, but exonerated Woelki who had already previously been exonerated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).
The cardinal, however, is finding it very difficult to regain his priests’ and the faithful’s trust.
The latest controversy concerns the parish of Sankt Margareta in the city of Düsseldorf, which belongs to the Cologne archdiocese, where Woelki wants to hold confirmations on 9 June. The two priest pepetrators whose cases Woelki has been accused of hushing up both came from Sankt Margareta.
The first case was that of Fr O, who was accused of having sexually abused a six-year-old boy in the 1970s. When Woelki took over the archdiocese in 2015, he failed to initiate a preliminary canonical investigation of Fr O’s case and did not report the case to Rome. The cardinal defended himself by claiming that by that time Fr O had serious dementia and could not have been interrogated. Fr O has since died.
The second case concerns Fr Michael D, who was one of the two city deans of Düsseldorf from 2017-2019. A city dean is the highest Catholic representative of a large city or city area. Woelki promoted Fr D to city dean in 2017 although he knew that he had had sexual contact with a male prostitute in 2001. The prostitute had blackmailed Fr D whereupon Fr D had sued him. The police then discovered that the prostitute was only 17 and therefore a minor and promptly informed the Cologne archdiocese. However, according to canon law, in 2001 17-year-olds were considered of age. Fr D was therefore “merely” judged to have broken the celibacy rule. Woelki has meanwhile admitted that it was a mistake to promote Fr D.
On 25 May Woelki received a letter from members of the Sankt Margareta congregation in Düsseldorf “urgently” asking him not to come and hold the confirmations on 9 June. The Sacrament of Confirmation could only be administered by someone “who is credible as a Christian in his office and you, unfortunately, are no longer that”, the letter, signed by 140 members of the congregation, said. Woelki was accused of “instrumentalising” the confirmation celebration in order to show that he had regained their trust. When he arrived for talks with the parish two days later, he had to walk through a line of parishioners holding red flags.
The talks lasted two hours. The cardinal is still determined to hold the confirmations but intends to talk to the young people being confirmed beforehand.